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Bob Lutz: Kevin McClelland has his roster ready

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Oct. 21, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011, at 10:34 a.m.

The Wichita Thunder, in case you haven't been paying attention, begins its Central Hockey League season tonight at Intrust Bank Arena against Rapid City.

This is an event that has been well publicized, to say the least. The Thunder's new owners, the Steven brothers — Rodney, Brandon and Johnny — are intent on letting people know about their new baby.

Long overdue local ownership, though, is only one of the reasons the Thunder is cracking as a new season approaches.

This is season No. 20 for the team and big events are planned.

Many of the previous 19 seasons have been memorable. A few — and one in particular — have been, to say the least, forgettable.

It was just two seasons ago, you'll remember unless you're fortunate enough to have forgotten, that the Thunder won nine games.

That was rock bottom. That was enough.

Kevin McClelland was brought in to coach the Thunder after two successful season at Colorado, and before that at Memphis.

McClelland, 49, was the architect of a Thunder team that showed significant improvement in 2010-11 and one that seems to be on the verge of blowing the roof off of Intrust Bank Arena this season.

He doesn't back away from such hyperbole, but is careful to point out that the other 13 teams in the CHL are excited and hopeful at this time of the year, too. Everybody, McClelland reminds, is trying to win.

But if you trust McClelland's resume, you know he's a guy with a feel for this stuff. He's a hockey guy through and through, one who played in 568 NHL games and helped win four Stanley Cups.

Given that background, it's at once exciting and a little surreal that he's coaching in Wichita. But the Thunder is the lucky beneficiary of his career decisions and with McClelland at the helm the time to win is now.

"I relish the job at hand and want to put a good product on the ice,'' McClelland said. "I'm very competitive and so is our new ownership group. I'm going to be blunt and say they saved hockey in Wichita, so I don't want to disappoint them, the fans or myself.''

Being blunt, I'm guessing, is something that comes natural for McClelland, who collected 1,672 penalty minutes in the NHL as an enforcer for the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson.

That fighting spirit and obsession with hockey have served him well as a coach. He scours hockey's backwoods and minor leagues to keep on top of available players. And when he gets one in his cross hairs, McClelland doesn't let him out of his sight.

He's slowly constructed a roster in Wichita that he believes can win, and win a lot. He doesn't follow the NFL that closely, so he isn't a fantasy leaguer.

Putting a Thunder roster together is his fantasy league.

"It's very time consuming,'' he said. "I spent a lot of time on the phone in the summer. Even now, I'm always looking to upgrade the hockey team.''

When the Thunder announces a player signing, 99.9 percent of their fans have never heard of the guy. They don't know if the player can play until they see him on the ice.

It's McClelland's job to know the player can play before he ever gets to Wichita.

"I spend as much time as I need to to get the right guys in here and put the best roster on the ice,'' McClelland said. "I follow minor-league hockey big time.''

Every nook and cranny of it, from the AHL to the ECHL, the SPHL and the FHL. If it has an initial, McClelland has done his due diligence breaking it down in his never-ending hunt for players who can help the Thunder.

"I reach out to a lot of my connections from the past,'' he said. "You get to know all the agents and ex-players who have become agents. That's a big help.''

McClelland's passion for what he does is obvious. He, like every kid who grew up in Canada, was subjected to hockey at an early age.

"The saying there is that when you're born, you come out with skates on,'' McClelland said. "That was the case with me. We sat around the television watching Hockey Night in Canada like everybody else. With my dad, my mom, my brothers and sisters. And I just said, 'Hey, I want to do this.' "

McClelland has taken to coaching the same way he took to playing. He said he is excited to be in Wichita and feels what Thunder fans feel, an excitement that a special season is about to begin.

"There are such great fans here,'' McClelland said. "Our new ownership has injected a whole new outlook within this organization. I know the Steven brothers are really excited. They're proud guys.''

McClelland, who knows everything there is to know about hockey, surprised me when he said the Steven brothers had even taught him a thing or two about the game.

Say what? Aren't they hockey novices?

Pressed, McClelland couldn't actually come up with anything the brothers have taught him. But it was nice of him to pretend.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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