If Thunder fans have any concerns about the team’s owners now also owning the team’s most bitter rival, Rodney Steven can probably diffuse them quickly and easily.
Steven, who owns both the Thunder and longtime Central Hockey League combatant Tulsa with his brothers Brandon and Johnny, said all the right things at his introductory news conference with the Oilers, referring to the team as “we” on more than one occasion.
That terminology might be inflammatory for those who expect steadfast, undeterred loyalty from the Stevens, but those traits are essentially what they’ll provide the Thunder even though some of their financial interests are elsewhere.
Rodney Steven is also the interim chairman of Central Partners, LLC a group of CHL owners who purchased the league in June. The Stevens also own Genesis Health Clubs, multiple Wichita car dealerships, and other businesses in Wichita and elsewhere.
“When Wichita plays Tulsa, I want Wichita to win,” Rodney Steven said. “Wichita is our team, but we bought Tulsa to make it as strong as it can make it, as well.”
Steven said he saw an opportunity to help the league and the Thunder by purchasing the Oilers. Tulsa was a likely candidate for disbandment without new ownership, and the Stevens’ purchase saved the Oilers and the rivalry with the Thunder. Wichita and Tulsa are the final two remaining original CHL organizations.
Saving a CHL original, Steven believes, helps stabilize a league that had 16 teams in 2010-11 and 10 last year. For this season, the CHL added teams in St. Charles, Mo. and Brampton, Canada while losing Bloomington and Fort Worth.
“I think the league is the most stable it’s been in the last few years and it’s going to grow and grow and get better and better,” Steven said. “We’ve had a lot of participation in making the league better, and we’re taking a strong role in growing the league now.”
Multiple ownership is hardly unprecedented in the CHL. Horn Chen founded the league in 1992 and owned all the franchises until he began selling them gradually. Chen owned the Thunder until the Stevens purchased the team in August 2009, giving the team local ownership for the first time.
Chen, operated out of Chicago and rarely made an appearance in Wichita. Even with divided business pursuits, Steven said his attention won’t be divided. Visits after every home game to coach Kevin McClelland’s office will remain customary.
“My brothers or I, we haven’t missed many (Thunder) home games and I don’t plan on missing any home games this year,” Steven said. “We’ll always be there.”
The Stevens saw expanding their CHL ownership as a viable option because they have helped the Thunder become one of the league’s best franchises. Wichita led the league in attendance last season and has been to the playoffs three straight years.
The brothers want that kind of success in Tulsa, which finished last in the league a year ago while averaging 4,166 fans in the 19,199-seat BOK center.
“If the Thunder wasn’t as successful as they’ve been the last few years, there’s no way we would have done this,” Rodney Steven said. “We’ve learned a lot about the sport and we still have a lot to learn, but we thought we could take some of what we learned and turn (Tulsa) around, as well.”
The turnaround could begin sooner than expected.
“I want them both to be competitive,” Steven said. “Wichita is where we live, Wichita is where our businesses are, Wichita is where our kids and family are. That’s obviously where our heart is. But I want Tulsa to beat every other team. I know Tulsa is going to be good this year.”
And as for those fans who may be feeling betrayed by their owner joining forces with the enemy, Steven hasn’t heard from any. Maybe because he does such a good job diffusing any hostility.
“I haven’t had a negative comment yet,” Steven said. “I’m thinking optimistically, (but) every person knows that our loyalty is 100 percent Wichita. Everyone knows how loyal we are to this city and to our fans and this team. We purchased (Tulsa) to make it stronger and make the league better and keep our big rival there.”