WICHITA, KS – As we turn the page on another year, it’s time to reflect on some of the watershed moments over the last 12 months of Wichita Thunder hockey.
Wichita heads into 2017 mired in the bottom half of the Midwest Division and outside of the Western Conference playoff picture with head coach Malcolm Cameron on the bench. There is still a lot of work to be done for the team to get assert themselves as one of the teams who can compete for a Kelly Cup championship, but we can have that conversation soon enough.
For now, though, let’s look back on the year that was for the Wichita Thunder.
No Return of the Mac
After an abysmal 2015-16 season in which the Thunder went 18-41-13, General Manager Joel Lomurno and Steven Brothers ownership decided to move in a different direction and on April 16, announced they did not retain Kevin McClelland as head coach. McClelland finished his six-year tenure with a 194-166-55 record and led the Thunder to back-to-back Central Hockey League finals appearances, but it was clear he could not make the pivot to the ECHL style of working with affiliations and bringing in younger players.
“This has been such a tough decision,” said Thunder Owner Rodney Steven II at the time of the dismissal. “Kevin was the head coach when we purchased the team in 2011. Since that time, we have appreciated the relationship we have had with him and his family over these last five years and we are thankful for the contributions he has made to the Thunder.”
McClelland’s hire and the turnaround the team had in his first year — from nine wins in 2009-10 to 34 wins and a playoff berth in 2010-11 — is what led the Steven Brothers to purchase the Thunder and saved hockey in Wichita, something McClelland should be praised for.
During his days with the team in the CHL, McClelland had a knack for bringing in big free agents and it is fair to say that the team he assembled in 2012-13 that battled Allen to overtime in game 7 for the CHL title; with players like Neil Trimm, Matt Robinson, Kevin Regan, Torrie Jung, Nathan Lutz, Kevin Young, Chad Painchaud, Ian Lowe, Matt Summers, Andrew Martens and Greger Hanson, among others, was the best he ever put together.
Since his dismissal, McClelland moved on from Wichita, but his kids are still playing for the Wichita Jr. Thunder of the Western States Hockey League. Kevin is in Salt Lake City, UT working with the West Coast Renegades Hockey Association coaching U-18 hockey.
Cameron Hired to Lead Thunder
After a month-long coaching search, the Thunder introduced Malcolm Cameron to lead the team at a press conference on May 20. The 46-year-old Cameron spent the last two seasons at Okanagan Hockey Academy after being fired by the Regina Pats of the WHL.
Lomurno said the process took some time and the team went through a good deal of candidates from junior hockey, colleges and professional assistant coaches, plus at least two former ECHL coaches.
“Early in the process, we identified that we wanted someone who has a proven track record of success,” the Thunder general manager said. “We wanted someone that is familiar with the ECHL, tremendous connections to the AHL & NHL.”
Lomurno said Cameron’s references stood out, but there was one endorsement — from ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna — that stood out. McKenna told Lomurno “If you hire this guy, you’re getting a tireless worker and relentless recruiter.”
One of the more impressive things about the Cameron hire was his ability to turn franchises around, something the Thunder franchise sorely needs. He has done it twice, once with the Long Beach Ice Dogs in 2004-05 and two years later with the Texas Wildcatters. Further, Cameron has made the Kelly Cup playoffs and won at least one round in each of his eight full seasons on an ECHL bench.
Thunder Lands NHL Affiliation
The ink hadn’t dried on Cameron’s contract before he went to work gaining an affiliation for the club. The usual suspects were out there; St. Louis and Tampa Bay to name a couple, but the organization paired up with the Ottawa Senators, who were paired with the Evansville IceMen before the team ceased operations at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Ottawa Senators assistant general manager Randy Lee said at a town-hall meeting on July 2, the Thunder would be the ECHL affiliate for the Senators this season. It is a one-year pact between the clubs.
For the Thunder organization, it is the first NHL affiliation in the team’s 25-year history and the first for hockey since the Wichita Wind were affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers from 1980-82 and the New Jersey Devils for the 1982-83 season. This is also the first pro-sports affiliation for the city since 2007 when the Wichita Wranglers of the Texas League were affiliated with the Kansas City Royals.
The only other affiliation the Thunder’s history came from 1997-1999 when they were paired with the Kansas City Blades of the defunct International Hockey League.
“We’re proud to become the first NHL affiliate of the Wichita Thunder,” Lee said. “The development of our prospects continues to be an important priority for our club. As we strive to place players in environments which are conducive to both individual and team success, we feel confident that a number of our young players will be able to progress with the Thunder.”
Wichita sent six players to AHL camps at the start of the season and Jack Rodewald, one of the higher-echelon signings for Wichita in the offseason, will finish the season with the Binghamton Senators after being called up to the club on November 9.
So far, the reviews on the affiliation have been good. Sources indicate Ottawa is very pleased with the workout facilities, arena and living arrangements for players. We will see if the two sides can work on a long-term pact in 2017. One obstacle to making that happen will be the location of the AHL affiliate, as the Senators is moving the AHL club to Belleville, Ontario beginning next season.
Thunder Get Off to Hot Start, Falter Over Holidays
With players like Alex Krushelnyski, Chris Rumble, Macoy Erkamps, Jack Rodewald on the roster and solid goaltending from Scott Greenham, the Thunder got off to a 7-3-0 start, but the tide started turning with a 5-0 loss to the Alaska Aces on November 18th. Including that game, Wichita has gone 4-9-1 and have been shutout four times at home in their last 13 games.
The catalyst of the Thunder offense quickly became Alexis Loiseau, who registered 24 points and seven multi-point games prior to his call-up to the Binghamton Senators, where he only played in one game.
Nobody knows what 2017 will bring for the franchise, but we can hope the Thunder’s silver anniversary season continues deep into the spring and I’ll be writing about a playoff berth instead more premature trips to the golf course for this team.