Sleep didn’t come easily for John Parco on Wednesday night.
The Soo Thunderbirds head coach had just watched his team drop a 6-3 decision to the visiting Hearst Lumberjacks in Game 7 of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League final at John Rhodes Community Centre.
“Obviously, it was tough to sleep,” Parco said on Thursday, looking back at the series and his team’s impressive regular season. “We battled hard and brought the series to Game 7. It’s very disappointing, but that’s how the game goes.”
For the second straight game, Parco viewed the clash from the sidelines.
He received a two-game, league-imposed suspension following Game 5 here last Saturday night. That was the result of his team leaving its bench without clearance (permission) at the end of Game 5’s 4-2 T-Birds victory.
Asked about such a suspension in the midst of the league final, Parco would only say: “It just doesn’t make any sense. I’ll let people draw their own conclusions.”
Asked about the helpless feeling of watching, but not playing a part in game strategy, Parco admitted it was far from easy.
“That was tough,” said the coach, who viewed the game from above the pool arena, behind the T-Birds bench, as assistants Marc Disano and Toots Kovacs ran the club.
The Soo was riding a two-game winning streak, including Monday’s 2-0 victory in Hearst, rebounding from a 3-1 series deficit to tie things at three wins each.
In his second season as the team’s bench boss, Parco thought his players “battled hard” on Wednesday, despite the fact they were “banged up and tired. And we didn’t get any breaks.”
The Soo coach spoke of the absence of netminder Colin Ahern, who had suffered a knee injury early in the second period of Game 3 and was lost for the series.
Defenceman Tristan Chichello was out with a broken wrist, having played in just one playoff game.
“And we had a lot of guys with bumps and bruises,” Parco added. “We have a lot of character kids on this team, beginning with our captain, Kaidan McDonald. It was tough to see them in pain after the game. But I’m obviously very proud of them.”
A number of Soo players took the loss hard.
Having fought back to tie the series, they entered Game 7 a confident bunch – especially having regained home ice.
The Soo opened a 2-0 lead by the 14:11 mark of the opening frame on Wednesday, but Jake Desando cut the Lumberjacks deficit in half late in the period.
That set the stage for a four-goal outburst – and a 5-2 Hearst lead – in the first 6:54 of the middle frame.
A couple of goals were arguably ones netminder William Anderson would like to have back.
Lucas Theriault’s second goal of the game, at 18:08 of the second period, brought the T-Birds into the final period down just 5-3.
But a comeback wasn’t to be. Lumberjacks netminder Nicholas Tallarico, later chosen the playoff MVP, was again outstanding.
“We had a great regular season and deserved to finish first overall,” Parco said of his team’s 44-11-0-1 (wins, losses, overtime loses, shootout losses) record. “We continuously got better.”
Parco said he planned to be back for the 2019-2020 NOJHL campaign.
During his first season, the Soo finished with a 36-16-3-1 (wins, losses, overtime losses, ties) mark.
“I enjoy coaching. I love it,” said Parco, 47, a former Ontario Hockey League star with the old Belleville Bulls franchise.
Kovacs made it official following Wednesday’s game: This was his final season as an NOJHL assistant.
“Working with JP and Marc has been an unbelievable experience,” he said. “They know the game. And this is an incredible group of kids.”
On Thursday, Parco thanked Kovacs for his hard work and dedication to the T-Birds organization.
“He’s just a fantastic guy,” the T-Birds bench boss added.
Moving forward, the Thunderbirds lose only four players to graduation: McDonald, Ryan Lawrence, Spencer Van Tiem and Brendan Miller.
“We’re looking forward to another good season,” Parco said. “We hope to move some guys to the OHL, but we have a good core coming back.”
The team has its spring camp set for May 11-12 at the Rhodes Centre. It’s an opportunity for prospective players to show what they can do.