It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
That’s the thought that’s run through mine, and likely most Thunder fans’ minds on loop throughout the past nine days since the Thunder’s 3-2 overtime semi-final loss to the eventual champion Newcastle North Stars.
Yep, it’s been nine days since that heartbreaking evening, that’s how long it’s taken me to process this and be able to write any more than three simple lines about it.
I feel like I’ve only just peeled my forehead off the glass after staring blankly through at a heartbroken Rob Haselhurst after Newcastle’s over time winner ended the most promising season in Thunder history.
We knew going in to the AIHL Finals weekend that Newcastle were going to provide the toughest test the Thunder have faced in 2016, being the defending champions and the most successful team in the AIHL’s short history.
The start was ideal, with Michael Dorr whacking home a rebound from an Andrew Cox shot to take a 1-0 lead, but a short-handed goal for the North Stars late in the period deflated the Thunder.
Ben Breault restored the lead late in the second period with a signature snipe from the slot, but the North Stars were able to level the scores 2-2 in the third period and eventually tire the Thunder and overwhelm them in over time.
Thomas Heemskerk did all he could once again, stopping 42 of 45 shots, but ultimately the Thunder fell just short of facing off for the Goodall Cup for the third time in four seasons.
Although the ending was heartbreaking, 2016 was far from a wash for the Thunder, and there’s plenty to build on for 2017.
As has been happening each of the past five seasons, the local core continued to develop, with 21-year-old Jamie Woodman establishing himself as one of the best mobile defencemen in the league, while strong young forwards Tomek Sak and Kieren Webster each continued to progress.
The move of captain Sam Wilson to defence seemed to provide a good stabilising influence for rookie defencemen Alastair Punler and Jamie Campbell, who continued to develop their games in 2016, while the introduction of former Swedish pro Per Daniel Goransson to the defence solidified an already imposing blue line.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the import players blended incredibly well with the locals, and the majority seem keen to return to the AIHL in 2017.
Import retention hasn’t been easy for the Thunder given the geographic isolation; in fact it’s proven quite the opposite, with only one import returning for a second season in Thunder history.
But the way Thomas Heemskerk, Ben Breault, Michael Dorr and Jessyko Bernard have gelled with the locals has instilled some promise that the men who were so key the Thunder’s playoff run may just return in season 2017.
We’ll have to wait and see what the offseason holds for the Thunder, and we’ll be sure to discover more as the Northern winter comes to an end, but there is great reason for hope within the Thunder ranks in season 2017 after what was a memorable 2016 campaign.