By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Could a victory over the Soo Thunderbirds Sunday afternoon at the McIntyre Arena be in the cards for the Timmins Rock?
That would be a nice coincidence given that the Rock will be giving out hockey cards featuring the likeness of captain Jordan Rendle to fans attending the contest.
Fans will have an opportunity to get those cards signed during an autograph session immediately following the contest, which is schedule to start at 2 p.m.
Rendle admits he “wasn’t too big a hockey card collector” growing up back home in Surrey, B.C.
“It is a real privilege and an honour to have a card of my own now,” he said, prior to the Rock’s practice at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex Thursday afternoon.
“Quite a few of my friends were card collectors back then, though. I definitely had some buddies who were big into that.”
The Rock will be releasing a new player card at each of the next 25 home games, but Rendle hopes to snag a few extras of his rookie card for friends and family back home.
“I am definitely looking forward to getting the opportunity to sign some cards for the fans after the game,” he said.
“It will be especially nice if we are able to pick up a big two points against the Soo.”
Rendle and a number of his teammates had an opportunity to practise their autograph skills last weekend during a session after the game where Steve Sullivan’s Rock jersey was retired.
“I had a chance to practise my signature a little bit then, but I am still working on it,” he said.
“It should be a good session.”
For any fans wondering, the card being released on Sunday is indeed a true rookie card.
“This is definitely the first hockey card that has ever been made with my image,” he said.
All 25 Rock cards in the series are sponsored by Goldcorp Porcupine Gold Miners, with each individual card also sponsored by a separate company, with Rendle, for example, sponsored by The Install Guy.
The next five Rock players — not in order — featured on the give-away cards will be Bain Cunningham, sponsored by South End Auto Parts; Nick Hautanen, sponsored by Gords Rentals; Wayne Mathieu, sponsored by O.K. Tire; Cole Gilligan, sponsored by Expert Auto; and Spencer Segui, sponsored by Tom’s Lock Shop.
Even without the prospect of getting a free Jordan Rendle hockey card and getting it autographed after the game, there likely would have been a big crowd of fans out for Sunday’s game to cheer on the Rock against arguably one of the NOJHL’s top teams.
“It is going to be a big hockey game and this is going to be our first time playing the Soo this year,” Rendle said.
“It is going to be a big hockey game and when I get out on the ice any thoughts about the card are going to be behind me. I will be focused on taking care of my job out on the ice first.”
The Thunderbirds, who started a three-game road trip with a game against the Crunch in Cochrane Friday night, will take on the Eskis in Iroquois Falls Saturday night before arriving in Timmins to take on the Rock Sunday afternoon.
“We are going to have to come out and play good hockey, for sure,” Rendle said.
“We had that one bad game there against Cochrane, but we have been able to put it behind us.”
Prior to their road trip, the Thunderbirds (10, 8-2-0-0, 16) were in first place in the NOJHL’s West Division, four points up on the second-place Elliot Lake Wildcats (11, 6-5-0-0, 12), with a game in hand.
That record also had them tied for top spot over all in the NOJHL with the East Division-leading Crunch (9, 7-0-1-1, 16), although Cochrane had played one fewer game.
“We are going to have to work the puck down low,” Rendle said.
“It is important for us to be able to effectively cycle the puck and keep it out of our defensive zone as much as possible.”
The Rock (7, 5-2-0-0, 10) are off to a good start themselves, making good use of an aggressive forecheck and playing sound hockey in their defensive zone.
“We definitely we feel we have a great chance of making something good happen this year,” Rendle said.
“We are still coming along and working on a few little things. There are still some elements of Paul’s program we have not implemented yet, but we are getting better day by day.”
The line of Rendle(7, 3-6-9, 22), Cory Sprague (7, 6-2-8, 6) and Cunningham (7, 1-6-7, 12) is off to a solid start this season.
“We have been working the puck well down low,” Rendle said.
“Me and Bain had some good chemistry last season and I think Cory has fit in with us just perfect. We love playing with him.”
The Rock will once again be without the services of leading scorer Mathieu (6, 6-4-10, 2) Sunday afternoon against the Thunderbirds, but coach and general manager Paul Gagne is confident a couple of the players missing for the game in Iroquois Falls Wednesday night might be available.
Hautanen, who missed Wednesday night’s game while serving a one-game suspension, will be back on the Rock blue-line.
“Alexandre Brisson missed Wednesday night’s game because of a death in the family, so he should be back,” Gagne said, prior to Thursday afternoon’s practice.
“I have yet to talk to Jacob (Shankar), but we expect to have him back on the ice today.”
Some of the names and faces may have changed, but Gagne knows the Thunderbirds team the Rock face Sunday will bring their A game to the rink.
“They have a great group of players who came up through their minor hockey system there in the Soo,” he said.
“When you have a lot of great local hockey players it certainly helps. That way, they can bring in three or four good players, plus they have got a good organization, with good coaching (Jordan Smith).
“It has been like that for quite a few years now. When you have the good personnel, the good resources and the players, it certainly makes a big difference in the win column.”
Gagne likes his team’s chances against the Thunderbirds if they “play Rock hockey.”
“We have been playing some pretty good hockey,” he said.
“Even against Iroquois Falls, when our lineup was a little bit depleted because of injuries and suspensions, we played well.”
Gagne knows how much of a boost of confidence a win over the Thunderbirds on Sunday would provide to his Rock squad.
“It will be a good measuring stick for us,” he said.
Up front, the Thunderbirds have plenty of scoring threats, including Matthew Caruso (10, 7-11-18, 10), Mark Tassone (10, 8-9-17, 0), Zach Senecal (10, 8-2-10, 0) and Keenan Eddy (10, 5-3-8, 6).
In net, Brandon Gordon (480:00, 6-2-0, 1, 2.50, .903) provides the Thunderbirds with a chance to win almost ever night.
Doug Newhouse (60:00, 1-0-0-0, 0, 5.00, .853) and affiliate Garret Boyonoski (60:00, 1-0-0-0, 0, 2.00, .952) have been solid in a back-up capacity, as well.
Gagne hopes to see another big crowd on hand for Sunday afternoon’s contest to support the Rock.
“It’s certainly nice when we get to play in front of a large crowd,” he said.