The only thing worse than losing once in the Central Hockey League championship series is losing twice. Back to back.
You can talk about getting to the finals two years in a row all you want. And yes, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. But to come so close and not win? Painful.
“Every morning I woke up this summer, losing Game 7 in overtime to Allen was the first thing I thought about,” Thunder forward Matt Summers said. “I feel like we should have won. I feel like we should have won the year before against Fort Wayne. But we let that one slip away fast.”
It’s time for another shot. The Thunder plays a couple of home games this weekend to open the CHL season and nothing less than a championship will satisfy this team.
The Thunder is 103-49-11 over the past two seasons, including its long playoff runs. This team has won and won and won — everything but a championship. And when you don’t raise a trophy, perspective can be difficult.
“It’s obviously a disappointment when you don’t win it all,” forward RG Flath said. “But many other teams in this league would be happy to go to the finals so you’re proud that you made it that far.”
He’s right, of course. There isn’t a healthier, more competitive franchise in the CHL. Or a better coach than Kevin McClelland, who begins his fourth season with the Thunder and has delivered on the great promise when he was hired.
This is a roster with nine returning players and 10 newcomers. The Thunder lost four of its top seven scorers, but has plenty of firepower returning in Summers, Flath, Matt Robinson and Ian Lowe. It’s full of veterans with enough young talent sprinkled in to keep things fresh. It’s a team built to win. The only mystery is how much.
“You can’t just play free and easy,” Summers said. “Getting to the finals one year is awesome and doing it again the next year is great. But we can’t just come into the next year and think that a first-round exit in the playoffs will make everyone happy. Anything short of winning is a failure.”
That’s enormous, self-inflicted pressure. But it’s the kind this team has no issue burdening itself with. A bunch of these guys have been around for both finals losses and the third time could be — needs to be — a charm.
“I think our roster looks improved,” Flath said. “We’re stronger top to bottom. Hopefully we can avoid getting hit by the injury bug like we did last year with (goaltender) Kevin Regan.”
Summers and Flath spent the summer in Wichita, working at the Wichita Ice Center. While Flath was able to work past the disappointment of losing in such dramatic and disappointing fashion — he said it took him about a month to recover emotionally — Summers never did.
It’s one of the biggest reasons he’s so excited for a new season to begin. He can finally start to forget about the last one.
“Realistically, we were 10 minutes away from being champions,” Summer said.
He remembers a breakaway, two-on-one situation in Game 7 against Allen. He and teammate Les Reaney had a clean look but couldn’t get the puck in the net. Allen scored at 17:41 in the third period to tie and won just less than three minutes into overtime on a goal by Todd Robinson.
“Immediately after they scored that goal in overtime I thought about things like Jason Duda, who has been with this organization forever as a player and coach and how close he came to getting his first ring,” Summers said. “I thought about how (McClelland) wants a ring just as bad coaching as he did when he was playing. And I’ve never won one, either.”
It slipped away. On another team’s ice, in another team’s building, in front of another team’s fans.
And it made for a long and excruciating bus trip back to Wichita.
“It was bad,” Summers said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but the things I thought about were how close we were, what we did wrong, all the shots I had. I know that one two-on-one opportunity pops into my head every day. You practice a thousand of them every year. That could have made it 3-1. Those things do haunt you.”
But, Summers said, the good news is that he’s back in a Thunder uniform with some teammates who had the same experiences, highs and lows. Perspective tells Summers he’s been on a couple of outstanding hockey teams the past two years. He’s happy to be with an organization that chases championships.
And the chase for 2013-14 starts Friday night at Intrust Bank Arena against Rapid City.
“That bus ride home from Allen last year, that seemed like a couple of days on that bus,” Summers said. “But it wasn’t a quiet ride. We did a lot of talking. There were plenty of words. Because we’re all still brothers in the end.”