The Thunder hasn’t been this good in 17 years, but their run to the best record in the Central Hockey League has been far from unpredictable.
All the elements of a thriving franchise came together perfectly this season. Wichita already has one of the most luxurious CHL arenas and an accomplished coach, Kevin McClelland, who won four Stanley Cup championships as an NHL player and was named the league’s coach of the year Thursday.
All that was missing was dedication, attention and commitment from local ownership. That came when local businessmen and brothers Rodney, Brandon and Johnny Steven purchased the team in August.
Since then, the number of staff members has increased. Marketing has boosted. Attendance has risen. And the Thunder will enjoy home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which begin next weekend at Intrust Bank Arena.
"When (McClelland) came up and introduced himself to me, I could tell this was a champion after talking to him just for a few minutes," Rodney Steven said. "After I met him again, it just reaffirmed my decision. I definitely knew they were on the right track."
The team’s only previous owner was Horn Chen, a Chicago businessman who almost never attended a game.
Under his ownership, Wichita slowly but gradually sank. The CHL champion in 1994 and 1995, the Thunder was an sporadic contender after that and in danger of folding or relocating in recent years. Rock bottom happened when Wichita finished 9-50-5 in 2009-10.
Stability came in the form of the new arena, an attractive and easy destination that gave a spirited fan base room to grow. Credibility arrived with McClelland, a previously successful coach in the CHL and one with a virtually unparalleled track record.
The Thunder reached the playoffs last season, making the team an inviting purchase. The Steven brothers, who co-own Genesis Health Clubs and Brandon Steven Motors, came aboard with the idea of making the franchise successful at the box office and on the ice.
"Everybody wants to come see a winner — people don’t want to go see a loser," Rodney Steven said. "It’s easy to support a team that’s winning. And you’ve got to be able to market it."
The Thunder this season has been easy to advertise — part of the jobs of the owners and marketing staff have been done by the team owning the CHL’s best record.
But instead of easing up on getting the word out, the Stevens have amped up marketing, producing more television and radio spots and bringing in more sponsors than in past years. The sponsors are omnipresent, with everything from an icing and offside calls to the first goal of the game having some representation.
The results are evident. Rodney Steven said the trip to the postseason will help the Thunder earn a profit, and the team is second in the CHL in attendance, averaging more than 6,200 fans.
"It’s very helpful, obviously," Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno said. "Having a group of owners that are here in town and are hands-on and who care about the success of the team both on and off the ice has been a huge boost to our office. They’ve been a huge boost to Kevin and been a huge boost to our team."
The Thunder’s on-ice effort has matched that of its staff. And the principals agree that the operation is running as smoothly as it appears from the outside.
"In the beginning, we told (McClelland) and we told the staff that we wanted to support the team 100 percent," Rodney Steven said. "We added employees, we added office staff, we added marketing. We built a whole organization, not just on the ice but in the office, as well."