Thunder succeeds in coach’s image

02/18/2012 5:00 AM

02/18/2012 9:58 PM

If you've ever seen one of the Thunder players level a major hit against an opponent — which isn't a rare occurrence, since Wichita is one of the most physical teams in the CHL — then the following words from RG Flath might be surprising:

"It's definitely easier to play a finesse game.”

Flath, a Thunder forward, said that with a smile. The rest of the quote is more in line with Wichita's philosophy, a trademark of coach Kevin McClelland that overcomes the true finesse teams in the league.

"Sometimes you've got to discourage the other team and take away their will to want to play."

What makes the Thunder unique is that it makes both styles look easy. In Tuesday's game against Laredo, Wichita implemented a more straightforward approach, rarely engaging in physical play but using an endless offensive barrage to overcome the Bucks 6-1.

The Thunder isn't letting its hulking players go to waste, though. Wichita has four players 6-foot-4 or taller, and all of them weigh at least 215 pounds. If Wichita's collective braun ended there, it would be a daunting task for opponents to equal.

But the Thunder gets bruising play from nearly every player on the roster. Flath doesn't fit into the 6-4-and-above group, but he hits frequently. Dustin Donaghy and Alex Bourret count checking among their strengths, too.

Wichita has 10 players with 30 or more penalty minutes and five more with 20 or more. The Thunder has developed a distinction as a team that is never afraid to engage. It is orchestrated to near-perfection by its leader.

"(McClelland) has always had that reputation a coach," Flath said. "He's always had a tough, physical team that also has a lot of skill and won't back down physically, either."

McClelland can adjust to personnel, but his preference is to find players who already fit the system. Or, in McClelland's case, who look familiar.

A four-time NHL Stanley Cup winner with Edmonton, McClelland was known as a player who could negatively impact the will of the opposing team. In 1987-88 with the Oilers, he accumulated 281 penalty minutes.

"I think he definitely recruits guys that won't back down," Flath said. "He looks for those kind of guys because that was kind of his style back in the day. A lot of coaches, their coaching style reflects their playing style."

A physical game isn't always necessary, and it's never easy. The Thunder has proven it can adapt on the fly and beat teams in several ways.

But physicality is proving to be Wichita's specialty, and it comes with an attitude that has injected itself into all of the Thunder's players.

"We have big guys," goalie Adam Russo said. "That's our game. If we play physical all night long, as long as we play that physical game, no one can hold onto us. We have guys that can bang guys all night long and throw them off their game."

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