WICHITA, KS – The year in Wichita Thunder hockey, 2017, can best be described in a word: “turn around.”
Last year at this time, the Thunder were getting clobbered by their western conference foes, capped off by a 9-0 home shutout loss — the worst in team history — to the Allen Americans on December 30, 2016.
The losing would continue, as the combination of call-ups to the then Binghamton Senators, a porous defense and a complete lack of offense all combined to produce the franchise’s second-worst record in their time in the ECHL (21-44-6-1, 49 pts).
We pick up the stories from there, as there is no use in crying over spilled milk. Here now are the top three stories of 2017 for the Wichita Thunder:
3. Affiliation Shuffle
You could have seen this coming from Dodge City after the 2016-17 season was over, the Thunder would leave the Ottawa affiliation and pair up with a team who had a deeper farm system.
And on cue, the team shuffled from the right to the left coast, joining the Edmonton Oilers family on June 20, 2017.
For Edmonton, the move came after the franchise sold the Norfolk Admirals to Mongo Media Group in October 2016 and the Oilers had been searching for an ECHL affiliate that was closer to their AHL partners in Bakersfield, California.
“Wichita will be a tremendous place to develop our prospects while they are in a winning environment under Malcolm Cameron‘s guidance,” said Bill Scott, Assistant General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers.
With their new affiliation, the Thunder locked down Zach O’Brien to a two-way (AHL-ECHL) contract and were assigned Kyle Platzer, Greg Chase, Shane Starrett, Chad Butcher and Evan Polei.
With some or all of those players in tow, Wichita got off to their best start in team history. Since November 12, they have lost Platzer and O’Brien — easily the best Thunder duo on the ice this season — to Bakersfield, likely long-term. And they have seen another offensive pillar, Greg Chase, move to the Florida Panthers system via a trade that happened at the NHL level.
2. New On-Ice Leadership
For the first time in three seasons, the Wichita Thunder started the 2017-18 season with someone other than Ian Lowe wearing the captain’s “C”. At the team’s media day just two days ahead of the season, Cameron tabbed Dyson Stevenson to be the team’s on-ice leader.
So far, it is safe to say Stevenson has filled the role admirably; sacrificing his body to block shots, take or dish out big hits, or fight when needed. He is also chipping in offensively, too, and is on pace for a career year in every offensive category. His best year came one season ago with the Allen Americans. In 53 games, Stevenson finished with 10G, 20A and 30 points. This season, the Thunder Captain is on pace for 42 points (18G, 26A) all of which would be career highs.
Stevenson has been a refreshing change to the Thunder leadership position.
3. Lackluster Attendance
Even with a decent home record for the Thunder so far this season (11-4-1-0 as of Dec 28,) attendance at Thunder games is down by close to nine percent when compared to this point last year, with an average attendance of 4,351 per game.
Of the 16 games played so far, six have been played on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. In those games, the average attendance has been 3,287, but in all honesty, INTRUST Bank Arena has been much emptier than the number would suggest.
The continued downturn in attendance has to be concerning to General Manager Joel Lomurno and the Steven Brothers, who currently run the team. The backslide in attendance appears to be a combination of factors; one, the accumulation of losing hockey under both Kevin McClelland and Cameron; two, the insane cost for ticket prices to watch a game; and three, having games scheduled on the same night as Wichita State Men’s Basketball home games.
We have covered the first point ad nauseam on this website over the last several years, so I’ll move on to the second point.
Walk-up prices for games at INTRUST Bank Arena have gone up in the last couple of years, which is shocking for a team that has done as much losing as Wichita has. While it appears the toothpaste is out of the tube, it will be interesting to see how much higher ticket prices will go up, especially if the team begins to see sustained success on the ice.
Finally, the Thunder and Wichita State have played on the same night three times so far this season. The two teams will play on the same night four more times between now and the end of the Wichita State regular season on March 4. While having this happen once or twice is passable, having seven overlap nights is too much in a one-horse sports town. Thunder management will have to do a better job of limiting the overlap nights in the future.
Here are five storylines to watch in 2018:
- Does Platzer & O’Brien come home to help the Thunder with a possible playoff run?
- Will fans come back to INTRUST Bank Arena for a possible playoff run?
- Does Malcolm Cameron get a contract extension after the season? Does he want one if it’s offered?
- Will Edmonton & Wichita strike a long-term affiliation agreement?
- If the Thunder are successful on-ice the rest of the season, will it be easier to recruit to Wichita in the offseason or does the stigma that has plagued the franchise for several years remain?
Stay tuned, we’ll attempt to answer those throughout 2018.