If you could assemble a team that encompasses almost every era of Wichita Thunder hockey but only had 20 players, what would it look like?
Would Trevor Jobe be left off your roster? After all, he had one of the best single seasons in Thunder history (56G, 69A = 125 pts in 57 games) in the 1996-97 season. What about Jim McGeough? A steady veteran for a pair of up & coming players (Clayton & Duda), McGeough had 199 points in 184 games over three-plus seasons for the Thunder in the late 90s.
What about in net? Where does the tandem of Jason Flick and Jamie Vandespyker — arguably the best in team history — sit?
All of those were tough decisions and generated some debate, but what Zach Courter and I found were that there have been a lot of good players come through Wichita in the team’s quarter-century of existence.
Before we get into who we think makes up the all-time Wichita Thunder roster, some background on what we did. We selected 20 players and two coaches; 10 forwards, 7 defensemen and 3 goaltenders spread out through all eras. We broke them down into forwards, defensive and goaltending combinations. We added the seventh defenseman and tenth forward our third line combination.
Without further adieu, here we go.
This almost seems like a no-brainer to have the best line in Thunder history paired together again here. Together, Joe Blaznek, Travis Clayton, and Jason Duda combined for 1,953 points, the most of any forward threesome in Thunder history. More impressive, it always seemed like those three knew where the other one was on the ice all the time. It is a shame that these three could not win a Central Hockey League championship together.
On the back end, you have to go with two of the most potent offensive defensemen in team history; Andrew Martens and Daniel Tetrault. Martens had a hard shot and an uncanny ability to see a play develop before anyone else on the ice, but more importantly, the former CHL Defenseman of the Year had a strong defensive game that flew under the radar, finishing fourth in team history with a plus/minus rating of +43.
For his part, Tetrault may be the most well-rounded defenseman on our all-time Thunder roster. If you wanted him to be physical, Tetrault would respond with incredible hip checks or fight guys a foot taller than him (see Maslonka, Milan.) If you needed a late-period goal, Tetrault could chip in that way, too. After all, he has the most power play goals in team history for defensemen (30).
The debate raged about who to put in our as the first netminder on our all-time team, but the ultimate metric is championships won. Hence, the edge goes to Bobby Desjardins. “Bobby D” was the CHL Rookie of the year in 1992 and for the era the CHL was in, put up really good career numbers. His 59 career wins have withstood the test of time in this franchise, and he remains the wins leader among goaltenders.
This forward line has plenty of sandpaper and playmaking. The stat that jumped out to me while researching this forward line was the number 34, the total of power play and game-winning goals scored by Brent Sapergia. While it is easy to be drawn to his penalty minutes and antics (Sapergia had 594 PIMs in two seasons in Wichita,) Sapergia played a big role in games during the championship years. On the other side of this line, Bob Berg put up back-to-back 100-point seasons, something that had not been done until the Duda-Clayton-Blaznek tandem came along. Of course, you need a playmaker to set everything in motion, and that is Ron Handy, who’s 137 career assists rank fifth most in Thunder history.
On the back end, we again had another blend of offense and defensive defensemen, both of whom could move the puck with tremendous efficiency. The tandem of Cam Plante and Sean O’Reilly combined for 267 assists, the most of any duo in team history. Much like Tetrault, the “Junkyard Dawg” could acclimate his game to whatever form it was taking. He finished with 926 PIMs and 142 assists, both rank fourth-most in team history in their respective categories. Also, some bonus trivia for you, O’Reilly is the only undefeated coach in Thunder history. He filled in for one game between the firing of Jim Latos and hiring of Derek Laxdal in 2003.
If it weren’t for titles, it would be fair to say that Sebastian Laplante is the best goaltender in Thunder history. Laplante finished his career in a Thunder uniform with a 52-37-12 record, .919 save percentage, a 2.90 goals against average and four shutouts. His 52 wins are second-most in franchise history, and his four shutouts are tied with Marc-Antoine Gelinas and Lance Leslie for second most. Laplante came to Wichita in 2005, after signing with the Mississippi Sea Wolves (based in Biloxi, MS) in the ECHL. The franchise folded when the arena and much of the Gulf Coast were heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina just months earlier.
This forward threesome maybe the most lethal of the lines we have rolled out so far. In their collective Thunder careers, the trio of Paul Jackson – Mark Karpen – Matt Robinson combined for 247 goals. Jackson’s 1993-94 season in Wichita is the best in team history. In that campaign, he racked up 71 goals, 64 assists (135 points) and 215 PIMs in 59 regular season games. In the playoffs that year, Jackson poured in another 23 points in just 11 games. Karpen maybe the most balanced forward of the ten we have. His 94 goals and 109 assists (203 points in 167 games) showed he was the prototypical centerman for his era, not afraid to snipe a shot while being a puck mover & distributer. On the wing might be the purest goal scorer the team has had since Joe Blaznek. Matt Robinson’s 114 goals in a Thunder uniform rank fifth most all-time.
For our tenth forward, we pay homage to the scrappiness that has been synonymous with Thunder hockey over the last quarter-century. No one fits that role better than former Thunder captain Jeff Leiter. He played for Wichita during a time when the rivalries with Tulsa and Oklahoma City were must-see hockey and the rivalries with Bossier-Shreveport & Colorado were just getting going. On a nightly basis, Leiter would answer the bell against players like Dallas Anderson, Justin Ossachuk, Charlie Elezi, Ryan Tobler, and Dan Wildfong. There is little doubt the Duda-Clayton-Blaznek era would not have been as successful if it weren’t for Leiter out there holding players like that accountable.
On the back end, we go completely offensive for our blueliners. Kevin Young and Paul Esdale had very similar games but in two different eras of the sport. Both were very efficient puck movers, combining for 132 points in 131 games on the Thunder blueline. In addition, the duo was very strong defensively, combining for a +55 rating on the blueline. For our 7th defenseman, we go with Travis Wight, who served as the shutdown defenseman for the Thunder teams that made back-to-back CHL Finals appearances in 2012 & 2013.
In net, we go with Nathan Grobins, who put together a very solid 2003-04 campaign for Wichita, going 28-14-2 with a 2.49 goals against average, a .914 save percentage and three shutouts. Grobins was also part of the longest game in Thunder history, a triple-overtime affair against Bossier-Shreveport on April 3, 2004, that Wichita lost 2-1. To date, it is the only triple overtime or longer game in team history.
Outside of the obvious first choice, this category generated the most debate. It is easy to say that Doug Shedden is the best coach in Thunder history. He had a record of 85-36-10 in two-plus seasons on the Thunder bench and forced the CHL to enact the first “veteran cap,” which caused him to bolt to the ECHL. More impressively, Shedden had a 16-6 record in the CHL playoffs as Thunder coach. He is the only coach in CHL history to win four titles (2 in Wichita and 2 in Memphis, both in back-to-back fashion).
The debate came with who our second coach would be. For us, it was Derek Laxdal, who finished with an 89-58-8 record in two-plus seasons behind the Thunder bench. More important to us was that Laxdal brought the franchise out of a two-and-a-half-year-long malaise and made the Thunder championship contenders, even into the early part of Mark French‘s tenure as coach. Laxdal would go on to win a Kelly Cup with the Idaho Steelheads and a Memorial Cup with the Edmonton Wheat Kings and is currently coach of the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League.
So what do you think? Would this be your team? What would you change?
It is hard to put 25 years of Thunder hockey into 1,400-plus words, but we hope we have done each era justice with this team. One thing is for sure, this franchise has provided south-central Kansas residents with plenty of memories in the last quarter-century. Here’s hoping one day, the Kelly Cup sticks around for a while and calls Kansas home.
The Sin Bin/Wichita Thunder pregame show co-host Zach Courter contributed to this piece. Graphics by Matt Thomas.