The Wichita Thunder hit rock bottom a couple of years ago and when that happens, there’s no guarantee of coming back. Rocks, after all, are very hard and falling on them is painful.
In fact, it was fair to wonder whether the Thunder would continue to exist following that 9-50-5 record in 2009-10. The ownership situation was sketchy with long-time Thunder owner Horn Chen losing interest. And general manager Joel Lomurno was under the gun to not only keep the franchise from sinking, but also to find a coach who could spark some life into a team that not only had the disastrous nine-win season, but had suffered through two terrible seasons before that.
Given those circumstances, I’m not sure how the Thunder pulled off becoming not only a viable Central Hockey League franchise once again, but one that will be playing in the CHL Finals beginning Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
Lomurno found his man in Kevin McClelland, formerly a successful player in the NHL and a decorated minor league coach, most recently with Colorado. McClelland might have been told a few things that weren’t 100 percent accurate about the condition of the Thunder, but he bit at the challenge of coaching a once-proud franchise that was down in the dumps.
And after a remarkable turnaround last season, when the Thunder improved to 34-26-6, this season has been incredible. It started with a change of ownership; Chen finally selling the team to an enthusiastic trio of Wichita brothers – Rodney, Brandon and Johnny Steven.
But if I had to pick the guy most responsible for rescuing the franchise, I’d pick McClelland. He strolled into town with supreme confidence, went about recruiting a better brand of player and rebuilt a team the way you see a skyscraper being built with time-lapse photography. The Thunder became good again in the blink of an eye and has gotten to be great nearly as quickly.
With typical humility, McClelland insists it’s about owners, front office, assistant coach Jason Duda, players, fans, the guy who drives the Zamboni between periods and then maybe – maybe – him.
“I just think this was a great situation here for me and my family,” McClelland said.
Whoa! Hold on just a minute.
If running into a burning house is a great situation, then I guess coming to Wichita to coach the Thunder was, too.
“We came here with a real good work ethic and were determined to get it turned around,” McClelland said. “I started talking to Joel before the season ended in Colorado because I knew I wasn’t going to go back there. I was looking for a change of scenery and they were looking for a coach.”
McClelland practically fell into the Thunder’s lap.
But there was one small detail conveniently ignored during negotiations, and that involved team ownership.
Chen wasn’t just a hands-off owner, he was an anatomy-off owner. Rarely seen in Wichita and the owner of numerous minor league sports franchises across the country, the Thunder had reached a level of stagnation under his ownership.
McClelland soon discovered Chen’s indifference and, he said, started looking for a new job after the 2010-11 season. Shortly thereafter, the team was sold to guys who are at almost every home game and whose enthusiasm for the franchise cannot be questioned.
“I’m not going to lie,” McClelland said. “I almost left. I had a few other opportunities and I was debating about them and there was a lot of talk with my family. But I ended up sitting tight to see what the Steven brothers were doing because there was a lot of speculation. And they have been just incredible. They expect people to work and that’s a work ethic that has been instilled throughout our organization.”
McClelland talks now like he’s in hockey heaven and told me he’s definitely returning to coach the Thunder in 2012-13.
“It would have hurt me to leave here,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends and it’s a great hockey town. Our fan base is huge. I’m telling you, when I came in here as the enemy it was a great place to come. You always knew it was going to be a great atmosphere, especially with those guys directly behind the opponent’s bench.”
Catcalls have turned into hugs and kisses for a coach who has the Thunder in the CHL Finals for the first time since 1998 and on the verge of its first championship since 1995, when it won a second of back-to-back titles.
“Kevin McClelland knows how to handle his guys,” said former Thunder standout Jason Duda, now an assistant coach. “He’s a good man and he says what he thinks and he does that with everybody. He doesn’t hold back and I think that’s what most athletes in all sports want. You might not like it to start with but at least you get the answer that you need to get.”
McClelland obviously has his players’ respect. And it’s an enjoyable team to watch – physical one moment and highly-skilled and technical the next. The Thunder loves a good crash, but there’s a purpose to the havoc.
“You have to respect your opponent in hockey but that doesn’t mean you give them a clean path to the net or that you don’t go after them on the forecheck,” McClelland said. “We’re an aggressive bunch but we respect our opponents. I was physical as a player, but I very rarely went to the penalty box by myself. You never want to put your team at a disadvantage like that.”
The Thunder has gone from historically bad to a potential championship in two years. It’s incredible. Lots of people get credit for the turnaround, but none more than the guy in the coat and tie who calls the shots from behind the Thunder bench.
Kevin McClelland, this is your town.