Friday, July 19, 2013

Part 21: Captain Stephon Thorne

Stephon Thorne had just turned 18 and was at a crossroads in his hockey career.

A seventh-round pick by the Brampton Battalion in the Ontario Hockey League’s 2006 Priority Selection, left winger Thorne skated at practice with the team through the end of the regular season and a five-game playoff stint after finishing a season with the junior A Milton IceHawks.

In the offseason Thorne phoned Stan Butler, Battalion director of hockey operations and head coach, to see whether there was a future with the club.

“I called Stan and told him I wanted to play in the OHL and, if it wasn’t with the Battalion, then I wanted to be traded,” Thorne said from Toledo, Ohio, where he was playing with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye along with former Brampton defenceman Phil Oreskovic. “He told me I’d have a spot on the Battalion.”

Thorne made the most of that phone call, playing 189 games over three seasons with the Troops, registering 32 goals and 25 assists for 57 points.  He was a member of the Fort Wayne Komets in 2011-12 when they won the Central Hockey League championship.

“If I hadn’t made that call and ended up with the Battalion, I wouldn’t be a pro hockey player today. Stan taught me so much about being a defence-first player. That’s what got me to the pros. I used to think I was a really skilled player, but that’s not really my style of game, and Stan put me in a position where he knew I would succeed. Making that call was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ll never forget Stan for what he did for me. He’s there for all the guys who played for him.”

After seeing the Battalion upset by the Barrie Colts in the first round of playoffs, Thorne felt the returning players had added motivation to make 2008-09 a successful season.

“Just seeing how angry the guys were after they got eliminated by Barrie made me realize that the guys who were coming back really wanted to win something.  They had a good team when I was skating with them, but that next season seemed to bring everything … grit, skill, defence and goaltending.”

Thorne appeared in 61 regular-season games in 2008-09, scoring eight goals and adding four assists for 12 points. He sometimes skated on a line with centre Matt Duchene and right winger Scott Tanski.

“Duchene is the most skilled player I ever played with, and it was great just watching what he did,” said Thorne. “Tanski and I just worked to get the puck for him and get him some open ice. He made things a lot of fun. He could motivate you and he didn’t even have to say anything. He just worked hard and put up his points.”

Thorne earned five assists in 21 playoff games that season as the Troops advanced to the OHL Championship Series, falling in five games to the Windsor Spitfires.

“We really had to push for something. Even if we didn’t win it all, we created something special in the history of the Brampton Battalion. I was so lucky to have a chance to play with guys like Duchene, Cody Hodgson and Evgeny Grachev. I learned a lot in that season alone. I played so many games, it was something I’ll never forget.”

Thorne played 67 games the following season, recording 13 goals and 10 assists for 23 points. The Troops, without captain Hodgson for much of the season because of injury, were credited with only 167 goals, fewest in club history, but eliminated the Kingston Frontenacs in seven games in an Eastern Conference quarterfinal before being swept by Barrie in the next round.

“You wonder how that season would have gone if Cody had been healthier,” said Thorne. “It probably would have been a much different season, and who knows how that Barrie series would have gone if he had been healthier. There might have been a bit of a hangover after the previous year, but that Game 7 win over Kingston was huge for all the guys.

“Guys like Tanski, Philip Lane, Sean Jones, Sam Carrick and Ian Watters were just some examples of the character guys who were around that team. We all wanted to win and, even though we were all different players, we all bought into Stan’s system of defence first.”

The Mississauga native was named captain in 2010-11, his final season.

“It still gives me chills to think I was captain. I didn’t know if I was in the plans. I was an alternate captain in my second season in a few games. I was never the loudest guy in the room. I was more of a guy who led by example, and I guess Stan liked that. It’s a great accomplishment for me.

“There were loads of great leaders around the Battalion when I was there, guys like John de Gray, Ken Peroff and Brad Albert. I learned a lot from all those guys, and it’s served me well in my pro career when I’ve had some ups and downs.”

That season, the Troops managed 190 goals, third-fewest in club history. Thorne produced 22 points, including 11 goals, in 64 games and scored two of the three goals the Battalion registered in a four-game, first-round sweep at the hands of the Niagara IceDogs.

“We definitely had trouble scoring,” said Thorne, who was recognized by coaches as one of the best defensive players and penalty killers in the Eastern Conference. “Guys like Carrick tried the best they could to carry the team offensively, but it was the kind of season where you find guys in bigger roles and we just had to stay positive with everything, and that helped us. Things could have been bad if we really let our lack of offence affect us. We battled hard, and all the leaders tried to keep the team on the straight and narrow. We knew if we were good defensively we’d be all right.”

Thorne, who grew up watching the Battalion and Mississauga IceDogs, said he was sad to hear the Troops will move to North Bay.

“It’s got to the point where the fan base wasn’t what it was in some other places. It’s tough that the Battalion is moving, but there’s no doubt they’re moving to a great spot in North Bay and the fans will be out for them too, and that’s what they need.”

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