By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
Every year the Texas Tornado seem to fall into the category of ‘team to watch out for’ or ‘keep an eye on.’ That’s thanks in large part to the reputation and history the Tornado has established since coming into the league back in 1999. What is even more surprising is that through all of the change in the junior hockey and NAHL landscape the past 10 seasons, the Tornado are now the league’s second oldest franchise. Having been through it all is head coach and general manager Tony Curtale, who has been with the Tornado since their inception. Curtale is not only the most tenured coach in the NAHL, he is also its most winningest coach in its 36-year history, having won six Robertson Cup Championships and over 700 games in total.
The Tornado season started on a high note before it even began. In the summer of 2010, new owners Bill Yuill and Gary Gelinas of Consolidated Sports Holdings, Inc. purchased the team and a new era of the Tornado hockey began. “The whole culture of the organization changed. We started doing the necessary things to recruit players and there was a lot more consistency and normality,” said Curtale.
After going .500 out of the gate the first seven games, the Tornado went on a winning streak for the ages. Texas would win 15 games in a row (an NAHL season high) and jump themselves into 1st place in the South Division. “I think everything was going right for us at that point,” said Curtale. “We were getting timely scoring, good defense and our goalies were playing well. That was the biggest factor for us, goaltending. Anytime our goalies played well and up to their ability, the team responded with wins. On the flip side, it was the exact same way if they didn’t play well. The team seemed to get down and despite outplaying teams on a regular basis, our opponents would win because they had the better goalie that night,” said Curtale. “Goaltending is just one of those things you have to have in order to win championships.”
The Tornado cooled off a bit towards the end of the regular season, but still continued to win on a regular basis. By the end of it the Tornado were locked in a virtual tie with Amarillo, their new rivals from the West. In the South Division Semi-Finals, the Tornado have up 12 goals in the first two games to put themselves behind the 8-ball. However, a win in Game 3 gave them life, but Amarillo would close out Texas in Game 4 to bring the Tornado season to an end.
As the 2011-12 season approaches for the Tornado, two story lines take center stage. This past spring it was announced that for the second time in team history the Tornado would host the NAHL Robertson Cup National Championship Tournament (Texas hosted and won in 2004). This means that this year’s Tornado will have an automatic bid to the tournament. “I didn’t build the team any different this past summer,” said Curtale. “Every year we are built to move players on and win championships, so I didn’t treat this year any differently. I think our talent is good enough on this team to accomplish both.”
The other major story line is Curtale’s pursuit of the all-time United States junior hockey coaching wins record. Curtale enters the season with 521 regular season wins, just eight shy of equaling the record of 529. In total between his time with Springfield and Texas, Curtale has over 700 wins in total including playoffs and tournaments. However, he is quick to point out that his players are the ones that make it possible. “I think winning that many games is a reflection on the teams and players I have been fortunate to have during those years,” said Curtale. “I am proud when we move guys on and they are successful.”
As for the players who are going to try to bring the Robertson Cup back to Texas for a fifth time, look no further than third year forward Jack Prince to be the leader. Prince, who had 60 points a season ago and played in the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament is also getting some NCAA Division I interest. Helping Prince up front will be Texas native Marc Biggs, who possesses the maybe the best shot on the team. Along the blueline, Air Force recruit Tyler Rostenkowski is back along with John Kirtland.
Texas will have a host of new blood on the team this season, but Curtale singled out brothers Jordan and Justin Greenburg. Jordan led the NAHL’s Austin Bruins in goals last year and Justin could be one of the best 1994 birth year players in the league this season according to Curtale.
As the host, Texas will be at the Robertson Cup Tournament in May, the question now becomes will they be a good enough team, starting with their goaltenders to put their name on the cup for a 5th time?
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Topeka RoadRunners.