Thunder rivalry percolates

11/17/2011 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 5:00 PM

In the 20-year history of Wichita Thunder hockey, only two games have been called off before the buzzer sounded, with the first cancellation bringing controversy, the creation of a villain and the start of a tremendous rivalry.

On opening night of the 1993-94 season, a brawl erupted late in a game between Thunder and Tulsa — a typical hockey event that turned troublesome when Oilers players began trying to climb into the Kansas Coliseum stands to confront the fans.

The Thunder blamed bad boy Doug "Goldilocks" Lawrence for starting the melee, which caused the game to be stopped with 1 minute, 13 seconds left in the third period.

Wichita won, but, more importantly, the game and fights signaled the beginning of one of the fiercest rivalries in Central Hockey League history.

In recent years, however, the once-stormy relationship between the original CHL franchises has cooled. At times, it seemed Tulsa was just another team on the schedule.

The reason was simple: Both teams suffered through rough times on the ice, and bad hockey is still bad hockey — even between longtime rivals.

Wichita and Tulsa, and their fans, would benefit from a return of the rivalry, and there are signs it could be happening.

Under coach Kevin McClelland, the Thunder made it to the playoffs last season and, at 8-2, appears to among the elite of the CHL this year. Tulsa, coached by former Thunder tough guy Bruce Ramsay, reached the playoffs last season too and is off to a solid start (6-4-1) again.

In the first coaches poll, released by the CHL on Wednesday, the Thunder was ranked No. 2. Tulsa is sixth.

Both teams are good — a positive first step.

"Now all it takes is one thing to happen, one spark, and we can get that rivalry going again," Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno said.

Undoubtedly, this would be an obvious time for Thunder vs. Tulsa to regain its stature in the CHL, given the upcoming schedule: The Thunder plays Tulsa five of its next seven games, including on Friday at Tulsa. The teams played two exhibitions and are 1-1 during the regular season.

Ramsay, who played for the Thunder in 2000-01, knows firsthand about the rivalry. His answer to the obvious question — what do you remember about the games? —speaks volumes.

"Lots of fights," said Ramsay, who piled up 364 penalty minutes that season.

Ramsay points out that the sport, from the NHL down, has changed from when he dropped the mitts so often, so the Thunder-Oilers rivalry might look different than it did back in the day. Which he said isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"The rivalry is still there, the intensity is still there," he said. "It just won't be as rough as it used to be."

Indeed, the teams played an exciting game Sunday at Tulsa. In a meeting that featured three lead changes, the Oilers scored two unanswered goals in the third period to win 4-3. There were no fights and 22 penalty minutes, but Ramsay said no one left the rink disappointed in the style of play.

"One of the linesman was telling me he couldn't believe how intense the game was, especially for a Sunday game," Ramsay said. "Guys were skating, finishing their checks. It was physical, even though there wasn't a lot of fighting."

McClelland said he doesn't mind playing Tulsa so frequently in the coming days, adding that it helps keep travel costs down.

Lomurno, though, called the scheduling "absurd."

Thunder forward Matt Robinson said he would prefer some variety. He fears an overdose of the Oilers.

"It just kind of gets boring, playing the same team over and over," he said. "You want to see new players, new faces. So I'm not a fan of it, but obviously they're in our conference and they're going to be big games."

In addition to the fact that both teams are winning games, interesting story lines will add to the Thunder-Tulsa replays. That Ramsay used to wear a Thunder jersey is an obvious one.

Similarly, goalie Ian Keserich has found his game in Tulsa after being dropped by the Thunder following an 0-3 start in 2010-11. He won 22 games for Tulsa last year; this season, the workhorse is 6-3-1 with a 2.72 goals-against average and a .916 saves percentage.

He has played in all 11 Tulsa games and is by far the CHL leader in minutes, so there is a good chance he will be in net when the teams meet on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena.

"Keserich is a great goalie, but we've solved him a number of times," Robinson said. "If we keep peppering him with shots, he's bound to let a couple in. If he lets in an easy one from time to time, he gets down on himself. He can almost be his worst enemy, and we can use that to our advantage."

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