WICHITA, KS – Not long after Wednesday night’s loss to the Tulsa Oilers, Wichita Thunder head coach Kevin McClelland picked his cell phone up off his desk and scrolled through message after message from former Edmonton Oiler teammates telling him he should be at Rexall Place (formerly Northlands Coliseum) in Edmonton, Alberta.
Oilers players past and present were gathered to say goodbye to the Coliseum which housed a dynasty during the 1980’s, of which McClelland won his four Stanley Cup rings.
“I can’t leave these guys to go up there, you know?” McClelland said.
It would be hard to blame him if he had decided to attend the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place.
There is no doubt it has been a tough season for McClelland and his Thunder squad. Wichita will finish the season with the worst record in the ECHL — a first for McClelland and the second time such an instance has occurred (2009-10 in the CHL) under the direction of General Manager Joel T. Lomurno since he took the job in 2008.
The head coach, in his sixth season with the franchise, spent the season constantly retooling the roster, moving popular players such as Danick Gauthier, Todd Hosmer and Joey Sides; while bringing in potential mainstays in Kale Kerbashian (33 pts in 35 games for Wichita,) Landon Oslanski (28 pts in 52 games,) and rookie Miles Koules (13 pts in 15 games).
“My main focus has been trying to get the right guys in here,” McClelland said. “Trying to see, if I am here next year, who we would move forward with and what character guys you want back. That’s where I’m at.”
Tonight, McClelland and the Thunder will round out their 2015-16 season with a game against the Tulsa Oilers at the BOK Center. When that sixty minutes is over, a summer full of uncertainty will begin for McClelland, the players, Thunder organization, and its fans. McClelland told reporters after Wednesday night’s game that he did not know whether a decision had been made about his future. His contract expires after tonight’s game.
“I can’t worry about that,” McClelland said. “I can’t worry about stuff that is not in my control.” It’s expected that McClelland, GM Lomurno, and the Steven Brother ownership (Johnny, Brandon and Rodney) will meet to discuss the future of the franchise in the coming days.
Members of the team’s leadership told local media Friday night they are in Wichita because of McClelland, but did not want to speculate on what his — or their — futures may hold.
After three seasons without a playoff berth, McClelland’s goal has been to get the team back being a championship contender, something he has proven to do in previous seasons.
“You wanna get back to those Finals years (2012 & 13). Those are the fun times to come to the rink. The chitter-chatter is exciting around town (Wichita).
It doesn’t happen overnight. When you take a little dip and go down to the bottom, it takes a little while to get back up.”
Wichita is one of three teams in the ECHL without an affiliation. Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, there have been zero American Hockey League-contracted players sent down to Wichita this season, something McClelland was known for getting in the past. The other two Steven Brother-ran franchises — Allen and Tulsa — each have affiliations with American Hockey League franchises (Allen with San Jose, Tulsa with Manitoba).
Regardless of whether the franchise enters into an affiliation with an AHL franchise this summer, McClelland believes the little things, which worked to build the team from the worst in minor pro hockey (2009-10) into a CHL title contender (2012 & 13) early in his stint, will work again in the ECHL.
“It just takes everyone working in the same direction. Everyone on the same page, everyone doing their job. When someone falls down, grab them and pick them up. Its a team sport and you know, you win together, you lose together.
“We gotta keep fighting,” McClelland said.
It remains to be seen if he will get the time to rebuild the franchise into the contender that it once was and win the championship that has long alluded him as a coach.