Last spring, Paul Flache was looking for an answer.
What would be next for the professional hockey player? The 10-year veteran defenseman was not sure he wanted to return for an 11th minor-league season. He still had the passion, but all the miles and injuries were beginning to catch up.
“I could have played on,” the 31-year-old former defenseman said.
But after the ECHL playoffs ended last spring, he sat down and asked himself a question: Did he want to endure another grind as a player?
Enter the Thunder.
The rising program based in Atlanta had a coaching vacancy for the 16-and-Under team.
“After last season was done, I got a phone call from the Thunder organization,” Flache said.
And a few weeks later, Flache had an answer to his question of what to do next: coach.
“A new challenge,” Flache said. “This was a great opportunity. I still get to go to the rink on a day-to-day basis.”
Flache’s daily agenda will be extended into April.
Under the rookie coach’s direction, the 16U team placed first at the Southeastern district Tier I tournament March 8-10 at Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Complex in Huntsville, Ala. The Thunder program will now compete for its first USA Hockey national championship in Pittsburgh on April 3-7. The Thunder’s Tier I 14U team and the Washington Little Caps Tier I 18U team also qualified for nationals.
The 16U Thunder utilized its speed to advance to nationals, edging the Washington Little Capitals 3-2 in the final.
“This group of kids can do some damage [at nationals],” Flache said. “We are definitely one of the fastest teams in the country. And we have a lot of depth.”
Flache said Mitch Fossier leads the 16U squad. Fossier has compiled 43 goals among 91 points in 58 games this season. Austin Beaulieu has added 24 goals and 45 assists in 58 games.
Flache said the club will receive a turbo boost with Nathan Krusko, one of the better skaters in his age group, returning to the lineup.
“He has been out six weeks,” Flache said. “He’s flying again.”
Goalie Joseph Cruz, in his first 42 appearances, registered a 25-6-2 mark with a 1.49 goals-against average.
As for captain Teddy Rotenberger, Flache said: “He is a 25 year old in a 16-year-old body.
“I could go on and on about the players. We have some skilled and tough guys. We are tough to play against.”
The revamped Thunder 14U squad secured its district title with a 9-1 victory over the Washington Little Capitals. Like the 16U club, the 14U team went unbeaten in round-robin action.
“It is this group’s first district title,” coach Keith Rowe said. “Good for them. We went through a rough time [recently].”
Beset by families of three top players relocating out of the area, the 14U team competed, but had little depth. When newcomers Jesse Purdy, David Cohen, Paul Raby, Clay Ellerbrock, Kyle Kawamura and goalie Carleton Boothe arrived, they “infused talent into the program,” Rowe said.
Kawamura is an under-age forward who collected 54 goals among 94 points in 48 games. Boothe is 21-7-2 with a 2.29 GAA.
“The players who stayed are a big part of the program,” Rowe said. “Now, the players are surrounded by more talent.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.