As a special feature here at manitobahockeynews.com, we’ll start publishing all the great stories from the first edition of MHN Magazine. Our first installment is on Selkirk Steelers star Parker Thomas, the current scoring leader in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. This was originally published Nov. 7 in MHN Magazine.
By Paul Edmonds
It was an excellent summer for Parker Thomas. More than just the warm weather and relaxing character of Manitoba’s most cherished season, it also delivered a hockey title of sorts.
After completing his third full season with the Selkirk Steelers in March, the 20-year-old turned his attention to spring/summer hockey in the Dakota Community Club’s Adult Hockey League.
It might seem quaint in the sense that games are played without much fanfare, but the loop offers a highly competitive environment for skilled players to continue their craft in the off-season in a non-contact format. Simply put, it emphasizes skill and finesse over physical play and allows individuals to stay in shape while continuing to play a team game.
Many current and former Manitoba Junior Hockey League players use the Division I league to stay sharp during the summer and Thomas’ team, the Mavs, won the championship, boasting a 14-4-0-1 record that included a whopping 163 goals-for and only eight penalty minutes levied against.
Despite its humble significance in hockey circles, it did give Thomas a small taste of what it would be like to celebrate a title on a grander scale this season, especially with the only junior team he’s play for in his career.
“I’d like to have a good season personally,” said Thomas, who finished second in Mavs’ scoring with 39 points in 16 games on a squad that included current Steelers’ teammates Eric Pushka, Damian Wallack and Ian Humphreys along with former teammates Dylan Heide and Hudson Friesen. “But my main goal is to win a championship. I’d love to get a ring with these guys.”
That might be considered a lofty goal for a Selkirk team that lost 14 straight and 15 of 16 to end the 2012-2013 season in the basement of the MJHL’s Addison Division.
It was the worst skid in franchise history dating back to the Steelers’ inaugural season in 1966-67, but if you’re looking for a reference point as to how and why a comeback can happen for the Thomas-led Steelers this season, enter the Steinbach Pistons.
After finishing with the worst record in the Addison Division in 2011-2012 and second-worst record in the league overall, the Pistons won the MJHL championship last season in Cinderella fashion.
“Without a doubt, I’d like to be a lot better than last year,” said Thomas, a Winnipeg product. “I didn’t think we were playing awful hockey. And it wasn’t like the effort wasn’t there. It just wasn’t going our way and we just didn’t get the bounces in many of those games.”
Thomas admitted it took weeks for him to mentally recover from the two-month slide that took the Steelers from the top of the division at the Christmas break to out of post-season contention on the last game of the regular season, following a stunning 4-3 comeback win by the Winkler Flyers — in Selkirk, no less.
Of course, if a championship season is truly in the cards for the Steelers this winter, then Thomas will need to be a major part of the genesis to a similar worst-to-first cliimb for a franchise that last won the MJHL title in 2006-2007.
Since entering the league as a full-time player at 17, Thomas has pilled up the points. In the last two seasons, he finished first in team scoring each year and among the Top 5 in the league both years, as well.
He’s averaged over a point-per-game each of the last two years and while being offensively prolific has also been durable, missing just five games in total over the last two seasons.
“Obviously he’s a guy we’ve leaned on in the past in terms of production,” said Steelers’ head coach and general manager Ryan Smith. “Arguably he’s our most talented player.
“But he’s capable of doing so much more from their blueline in. And his overall game has to rise up to an elite level. He needs to be our best player night in and night out.”
Thomas admits that after scoring just two goals and 15 points in 44 games three years ago, he snuck up on the rest of the 11-team league the following season (2011-12) with a breakout campaign.
The Miles MacDonnell Collegiate graduate exploded for 27 goals and 74 points the following season in 59 of 60 Steelers’ games. He says he may have snuck up on the league two years ago and really noticed the difference in how much less room to operate he was given last year, especially in the offensive zone.
Yet, he still finished last season with a career-high 29 goals and a team-leading 73 points.
“I surprise a lot of people in my 18-year-old season,” he said. “But I love the competitive factor. If someone thinks they can have me then I’ll do my best to beat them.”
“He’s going to get shadowed. We know that. He knows that,” the coach said. “He’s going to draw a lot of attention. How does he get through, that’s what we want to push him toward.”
Entering this season it’s not inconceivable for Thomas to amass a 100-point campaign and certainly if he’s scoring at that kind of pace, then the Steelers are going to a direct benefactor.
But Smith also believes Thomas’ value can be augmented along with his future aspirations and the team’s objectives this season through improvement in the less tangible statistics of the game. In Junior A hockey, finishing checks and blocking shots are also part of what can make a player the complete package in the eyes of college or professional scouts.
“It’s all the little things that add up to being an elite player,” said Smith. “Offensive guys generally get a little more leeway. But this a stepping stone for him. I know he wants to play college hockey and if he has another solid year and becomes a complete player, he will definitely attract some interest for a scholarship.”
Already considered a leader in the dressing room and on the ice, Thomas is to likely wear a letter for the Steelers again this season. His teammates understand what he brings to the team and he’s highly respected.
However, in this, his final season of junior hockey, he knows that it’s likely the most important year of his entire career, especially since his high school grades were solid (75-80 average) and he’s already had some moderate interest from American college programs.
“I’d love to get to triple digits in points, but I think if I do anything better than last year it will be an improvement,” he said. “I have pretty big optimism that I can reach my goal. We’ll see how the start of the season goes, but I’m excited for the season to start and hopefully there’s big things waiting to happen for us.”
It was an excellent summer for Thomas – one he would like to carry into the winter and ultimately finish with another celebration in the spring. This time around, however, he’d like it to be with the Steelers in his final season as a junior hockey player.