WICHITA, KS – With a team that is 25 years old, it is easy for a fanbase to turn over multiple times during a team’s existence. For the Wichita Thunder to retain their core group of diehard fans throughout their history is something for the organization to be proud of.
But if I were to give you tell you the following names; Greg Neish, Jim Latos, Craig Johnson, Curtis Voth, Bryan Wells, Derek Parker, Aaron Boogaard, Erick Lizon, Paxton Leroux, what is the common thread that binds them together?
All of those guys were predominately known to the Thunder fanbase as fighters. In fact, some old Wichita Thunder teams were known to have four or five tough guys on their roster at times. For the Wichita Thunder, the change to this “new” brand of hockey happened two years too late, with the team having two roster spots — including one veteran spot — dedicated to fighters last season.
It goes without saying that each one of those guys did their job well, and left fans with some indelible memories of games gone by.
Who doesn’t remember the “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game from a few years back?
Or, the “Christmas Massacre” game in 1994, between Wichita and Oklahoma City?
Or, one of the classic Curtis Voth/Craig Johnson tilts?
All of those were great times and they brought us back to the rink to see those teams and players again. But, times have changed and it is time for fans to embrace what the sport of hockey has evolved into, from an era of where “tough guys” had dedicated roster spots, to a new era of collective team toughness.
Toughness is being defined differently; by a team that plays tough but smart, rather than having one or several guys dedicated to handling the rough stuff. Toughness is measured by doing the little things necessary to win games; blocking shots, winning battles along the wall and in front of the net, and goading the opposition into untimely penalties only to make them pay on the scoreboard.
So what does this new era of toughness look like?
For everyone who says that the Allen Americans are a “team full of goons,” their dynasty has been epitomized by three major factors.
First, the organization’s ability to build a corps of players that never move up (Gary Steffes, Chad Costello, Greger Hanson, Spencer Asuchak, Riley Gill, Aaron Gens.) Of those six players, Hanson has had the most call-ups during the team’s ECHL title run.
Next, Steve Martinson, who is without a doubt the best when it comes to getting the most out of his players and making the moves necessary for his teams to be successful, both in-game and on the roster.
Finally and most importantly, his teams ooze toughness throughout the roster. While they take a lot of penalties, they also have the ability make their opponents pay on the scoreboard (though it has yet to manifest itself this season.) Case in point, Dyson Stevenson tussled with Vincent Dunn Saturday night and scored three assists. Steffes, who is known as a scorer, has a great physical game as well.
And you don’t need “tough guys” for the playoff runs either. Last season, the Missouri Mavericks acquired noted tough guy Eric Neilson from the Manchester Monarchs on January 19. Once he arrived in Independence, he only played in 18 games for the team during the rest of the regular season and was a healthy scratch for each of the Mavericks’ 10 playoff games. Before you go pinning the Mavericks’ collapse to Allen on a “lack of toughness,” Missouri was defeated because Jesse Root was out for the season (skate cut to his leg) and Bridgeport recalled most of their AHL contracted players for their own playoff run.
For Wichita, Vincent Arseneau and Ian Lowe are the flag carriers for the team toughness model. This past Saturday night, Arseneau was physically engaged with Allen players, getting several Americans players to take unnecessary penalties and while adding two points to the score sheet. Sunday night, Arseneau scored three points (2 goals, 1 assist,) while laying out to block several Mavericks chances to tie the game up in the third period.
While his it’s true that his offensive production has gone down, the team is not asking Lowe to carry that load, unlike last season. Head Coach Malcolm Cameron is asking Lowe to be the leading example of what he is looking for from every player, one that consistently sacrifices his body game after game to block shots, go in the “dirty” areas of the ice, or get in the face of opponents.
Another good example is the play of Ryan Tesink, a forward who is always the first on the forecheck, a pest on the penalty kill, and an opportunistic physical player.
I continue to believe fighting will always have a place in the sport of hockey, for it serves as a steam valve when tensions become too high on the ice. But, the days of dedicating roster spots to guys to putting on the foil are gone and likely never to come back.
Embrace the change.