Looking for a fight: Thunder seeks rival

12/17/2010 12:00 AM

12/17/2010 3:04 AM

Back in December of 2005, a vicious elbow thrown by Oklahoma City's Tyler Fleck knocked Thunder centerman Travis Clayton out of the game — an ugly incident that prompted the typically mild-mannered Wichita star to describe the Blazers' franchise and its coach, Doug Sauter, as "a joke."

Ah, the good old days.

That dustup was noteworthy for its seriousness — Clayton missed six games, while Fleck was suspended for 12 — and because it was the last major controversy between the Thunder and Blazers, original Central Hockey League franchises known for their intense hatred of each other.

"There was a lot of bad blood," said Thunder assistant coach Jason Duda, who experienced the rivalry firsthand as a player.

The Blazers' final season in the CHL was 2008-09 and, although the admission may hurt, the Thunder organization misses nearly everything about its old rival — even Sauter's trademark handlebar moustache.

Because that bad blood was good for business: Not surprisingly, the Thunder's three largest crowds in the Kansas Coliseum were for games against Oklahoma City.

Since the Blazers folded to make room for the city's American Hockey League franchise, the Thunder has struggled to find a suitable replacement.

So many teams in the CHL, so few to despise.

Perhaps more than anyone involved, Duda is well qualified to comment on the issue. The former winger felt insulted when, as a rookie, he was traded from the Blazers during the 1996-97 season, and his ongoing dislike of Sauter and everything Blazers fueled the rivalry for 13 years.

"The thing about the games with the Blazers was that you never knew what was gonna happen," Duda said. "There could be a blowout, an overtime game, a huge comeback, a brawl. Anything could happen.

"Unfortunately, we really don't have a rivalry with anyone now like we did with (Oklahoma City)."

It is unfortunate, indeed, because the Thunder, after years of playing dismal and boring hockey in the dreary Kansas Coliseum, finally has a proven winner in coach Kevin McClelland. They also have a team capable of beating the elites and the best arena in the CHL.

Still, a key element is missing — an opponent the fans love to hate. An opponent that the league's most-annoying fans, anointed as such by the annual Best of the Best poll, can really... annoy.

"When you played the Blazers, everyone was curious to see what was going to happen," general manager Joel Lomurno said. "Win or lose, it was a game people were usually talking about the next day.

"I would love to see another rivalry like that spring up again."

There is no shortage of viable candidates.

The most obvious is Fleck's new team, the Tulsa Oilers. They visit Intrust Bank Arena tonight.

As members of the CHL since the league formed in 1992, the Oilers and Thunder have history, the obvious proximity, and ample opportunity for hard feelings to develop, given that they play 12 times this season.

Familiaritybreeds contempt, especially on the ice.

"Tonight there wasn't a lot of after-the-play stuff, but I think you'll see that develop as the season goes on," Tulsa coach Bruce Ramsay said after his team beat the Thunder on Saturday. "As often as we play, it breeds bad blood. Hockey players don't have short memories. When rivals play each other a lot, things are gonna get heated."

Lomurno would love for a heated rivalry to develop with the Missouri Mavericks, a second-year franchise based in Independence, Mo.

Like Fleck, Missouri's Carlyle Lewis is a player Thunder fans could learn to loathe, Lomurno said.

The Mavericks won all 10 meetings between the teams last season and the first one this year before the Thunder broke through with a 4-3 victory on Nov. 6.

"We want to let them know that the old guard is now a team to be reckoned with," Lomurno said.

There is reason for Wichita fans to dislike a few other teams.

Colorado is always loaded with talent, but the Eagles don't play with the same edge since Ryan Tobler and Greg Pankewicz have retired.

Bossier-Shreveport is coached by Scott Muscutt, who seems to love to scrap with Thunder coaches. Recall Muscutt vs. Derek Laxdal, and Muscutt vs. Mark French. Muscutt vs. Kevin McClelland would do well on pay-per-view in all CHL cities.

And Bossier is also the home of former Thunder stars Clayton and Joe Blaznek.

Finally, the Thunder's first meeting with the Fort Wayne Komets resulted in four fights, three in the first period.

Alas, none of those teams seems to represent the perfect rival, like the Blazers were. But Lomurno remains hopeful.

"I'd love to find that one rivalry that will set off an explosion of excitement," Lomurno said. "And it just takes one event to make it happen."

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