Best of 2010: Coach gives Thunder a hint of respectability

12/29/2010 12:00 AM

12/29/2010 7:54 AM

The top story from the Wichita Thunder beat in 2010 was either the franchise's improved use of the video board at Intrust Bank Arena or the hiring of a four-time Stanley Cup champion and former Central Hockey League coach of the year to run the team.

I'll go with the much-needed arrival of Kevin McClelland, whose presence in Wichita gives the Thunder, a once-proud franchise turned league laughingstock, credibility, star power and hope for the future.

The rebuilding effort isn't complete, but the rebuilt Thunder is 12-13-2 — light years ahead of last year's nine-win team and games are, for the most part, entertaining to watch.

A few reasons why having McClelland as coach is good for the fans, the franchise, and the beat writer:

* Don't mess with these guys. McClelland despises goon hockey, but he builds his rosters to ensure that his teams don't get pushed around. Ryan Hand, Robin Richards and Jason Goulet are all tough customers. Less obvious but equally important, McClelland brings a demanding, no-nonsense attitude to the team. In a game against Missouri on Sunday, Thunder defenseman Kory Scoran got taken out in the corner by a questionable hit, and what followed was both entertaining and telling. McClelland looked over to Missouri's bench and pretended to be writing something down. Then he pointed to his temple. While McClelland declined comment, his actions were clear: "We'll remember that."

* Historical importance, and Mrs. Gretzky. A feared and fearless winger, McClelland was an integral piece of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty of the 1980s. So just standing next to him is, in a way, like experiencing a piece of hockey history. Pushing the point, it's kinda like standing right next to Wayne Gretzky, which is sorta like standing right next to Janet Jones, and that wouldn't be a bad thing, and I say that as a happily married man. Has there ever been a less appreciated actress than Janet Jones? Without her realistic portrayal of a 25-year-old, 5-foot-11 Olympic gymnast, "American Anthem" is just another forgettable sports movie. Instead, she steals every scene from Mitch Gaylord and totally owns that movie, one of the most underrated sports flicks of all time — it's like "The Cutting Edge," but without that annoying toe-pick thing.

* Loyalty. There's a great story from back in the day about how the Oilers tried to entice McClelland into playing in the Mega-Stars oldtimers' game, which was a feature of the NHL Heritage Classic in 2003. It would have been an honor, but McClelland was then an assistant coach for the St. John's of the American Hockey League. St. John's was playing on the same night as the Mega-Star game. Even No. 99 himself couldn't persuade McClelland to play. Imagine saying no to the Great One. McClelland joked it off, saying it would be a long way to travel for a couple shifts. But he had a serious answer that was more revealing. "I went to war with those guys in Edmonton and I loved it, but I go to war with the St. John's Maple Leafs these days," he told "The Telegram."

These days, McClelland goes to war with the Thunder. That alone makes 2010 year a good one for the franchise.

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