The Junior Thunder’s hopes for a hockey championship went from impossible to, according to one player, guaranteed.
“I said we are not losing a game,” forward Peter Cicmanec said. “Maybe it’s hard to believe we won the cup, but Wichita got it.”
The Junior Thunder, a team of 16- to 21-year-olds which plays at the Wichita Ice Center and is not directly affiliated with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder, won the Western States Hockey League’s Thorne Cup last weekend in Ogden, Utah.
Wichita went undefeated through 11 postseason games, capping the run with a 4-3 win over the Idaho Junior Steelheads in Sunday’s championship. The Junior Thunder ended the year on a 16-game winning streak, more wins than it had in its first two seasons combined.
Coach Rob Weingartner endured two miserable seasons to begin the program, including four wins in 2013-14, before progress was made in year three and a breakthrough began last year.
The team went from 17 wins to 30 to 35 in the 52-game regular seasons while young players that were part of the tough early seasons developed to become indispensable pieces of a champion.
“We just each year built up a little stronger,” said the 45-year-old Weingartner, who played for the Thunder from 1992-96. “We built a bigger and better team each year and here we are in our fifth year with a championship.”
The championship has been a long time coming for several Junior Thunder players and for Weingartner, who has coached for each of its five seasons.
Jack McClelland son of former Thunder coach Kevin McClelland, endured the four-win season and is one of three players, along with Alex Smith and Austin Barr, to play at least four years with the team.
Matt McClelland, Jack’s brother, is among a group that has played three seasons. It includes Cicmanek, who scored 152 points, one behind teammate Oskar Gullstrom for the league lead.
Jack McClelland’s scoring totals have risen each season, from 25 in his first to 101 this season. Cicmanek had 71 points in 2014-15 and 103 last year, while Gullstrom improved from 69 points a year ago.
“That’s been the difference,” Weingartner said. “We were able to return players each year, and it built up. We have two guys that have been here five years, Alex Smith and Austin Barr. Five years they knew our program.
“… Returning the guys is ultimately the biggest factor in winning.”
Gullstrom, Cicmanek and David Good, who scored 118 points, were each in the top five of scoring in the WSHL while playing on the same line.
Wichita had the eighth most wins in the league but rolled through the playoffs behind its veteran players. Many will be moving on to college or potentially professional careers, but not without hardware that was, they told themselves, guaranteed.
“(Weingartner) was the guy five months ago who was telling me, ‘Believe me. Trust me, Peter. We are winning the cup,’ ” Cicmanek said. “And then we did it. I believed him. You have to, right?”