In 2010, a moribund Thunder hockey franchise hired proven Central Hockey League stalwart Kevin McClelland as coach, and Wichita has made the playoffs in each of his three seasons, reaching the CHL finals twice.
Nine games into McClelland’s first season, the Thunder found a player, via trade, who has been instrumental to the turnaround and the sustained success.
Matt Robinson doesn’t have the bulk statistics of some of the franchise’s past greats such as Travis Clayton and Jason Duda, but he has arguably been just as important. His three seasons with the Thunder have coincided with Wichita’s emergence as one of the league’s most successful teams.
After this season, though, the Thunder will have to find a new face of the franchise. Robinson, a forward who turned 28 in August, says he will retire before the toll hockey takes on his body becomes permanent.
He’ll leave a legacy that included a pair of All-Star selections and as a point-per-game scorer over three years and three postseason appearances.
Wichita bottomed out with a 9-50-5 record in 2009-10 before hiring McClelland, who revamped the roster.
“Before I got here, I heard the struggles the team was going through,” Robinson said. “… I found out I was getting traded here and I didn’t know much about Wichita or Kevin. When I got into town, he had changed the look of the franchise. He brought me in and brought some other guys in, and I’d like to think I was a pretty big part of getting this franchise turned around.”
After four seasons in the ECHL, Robinson joined the CHL with Laredo in 2010-11, but it was clear early that it wasn’t a good fit. Robinson had one goal in eight games with the Bucks, but McClelland saw a player who had produced on a slightly higher level, like when Robinson scored 55 points in 51 games for Stockton the previous year.
From the start, Robinson was a fit in Wichita. He had 16 points in his first 16 games and later had a stretch of scoring in 22 of 25 games. Robinson earned his first of two straight All-Star bids and helped lead the Thunder to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
“He was in Laredo and things weren’t working out,” McClelland said. “You could tell he was a proven scorer and a guy that you could count on all the time. He’s a true professional off the ice, too.”
Robinson got an opportunity back in the ECHL with Alaska last season, but the NHL lockout clogged rosters at all levels and forced many players down a level since many NHL players had to work in the minor leagues.
That element cut Robinson’s playing time sharply, and when he was granted his release he bolted back to Wichita where he became a key component down the stretch.
Robinson has played multiple years for three teams, but identifies most as a Thunder player because of the way fans have embraced him and because he met his wife here.
“Certain times after I’m done I’d come back and visit and see everybody,” Robinson said. “I’ve met so many people outside of hockey that have helped me, and friends along the way. It’s been a great experience, so I’ll always call this my second home.”
Robinson is planning to retire so the surgeries on his knee and shoulder, the loss of the tip of his finger and the general wear and tear the body endures in hockey don’t affect him as much later in life. He’s going to be a sales representative for a sporting goods company and live in Ferndale, Wash.
Planning for the future makes it seem as if Robinson is putting hockey behind him, but that is far from reality even though he may not play professionally again.
“No matter what, once I’m done with hockey competitively I’ll still be playing hockey just for fun,” Robinson said. “They’d pretty much have to put me in a wheelchair for me to not play again.”
Before the fun, though, comes one last piece of business – chasing the elusive championship after falling in the finals the last two seasons. The declaration of his impending retirement heightens the urgency for Robinson, and he hopes that pressure will bring out the best in him.
“I’ve had a great career, and to finish it here in Wichita is even better, especially with my wife being from here,” Robinson said. “We’ve come so close to winning a championship the last couple years. This year is hopefully the year and I can go out on top.”