It may not have the marquee value of a series against Missouri, but for Thunder players Thomas Beauregard, Adam Russo and Daniel Tetrault, there is no detracted meaning from playing Fort Wayne in the Central Hockey League finals, which begin Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
Missouri is arguably the Thunder’s biggest rival, a feud that intensified when the teams met in last season’s playoffs and stayed hot this year even when the teams played in opposing conferences. A series with the Mavericks could have centered around pure hatred — from the players and the teams’ fans.
There is plenty of incentive in playing Fort Wayne, though. For Beauregard, it’s a chance to win a second professional championship, following the title he won with Cincinnati of the ECHL in 2008.
Russo has jousted verbally with opposing goalie Nick Boucher this season, and though he says their past altercations won’t play a role in the series, Russo can one-up his rival by defeating him when it matters most.
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Tetrault, Wichita’s 32-year-old captain, lost his only previous chance for a championship a decade ago. He’s grateful for another opportunity while realizing this could be his last.
"Maybe the fans wanted to see Missouri," Beauregard said. "But it’s going to be awesome against Fort Wayne."
Thunder players have varying levels of championship experience, which can be beneficial since they all either hope to replicate the feeling that comes with winning one, erase a bad memory or create a good one. Wichita hasn’t won a title since 1995 and last appeared in the CHL finals in 1998.
Beauregard was the second-leading scorer for Cincinnati in the year the Cyclones won the ECHL championship. He was 21 then, and four years later he finds himself as just an important piece of another team chasing a title.
The Thunder forward said the teams share important traits — their skill is title-worthy and their collective energy is always positive.
"It’s a pretty similar thing," Beauregard said. "I want another championship right now. There’s no feeling to describe what’s it’s like to win. If we can win with this group of boys, it would be phenomenal."
Tetrault has only come close to that feeling. His only finals appearance to date happened 10 years ago, with Austin of the CHL, but that doesn’t make it easier to forget.
At that point, Tetrault was still early in a career that began when he was 15. He shuffled through multiple minor leagues and hasn’t gotten the chance to eliminate that memory until now.
Tetrault, a valuable defenseman, missed 27 games this year due to injury. His career isn’t wrapping up yet, but it’s on the downslope.
"Some guys play a lot of years and never get a chance to be in the finals," Tetrault said. "I’m enjoying the moment right now and you never know how many chances you’re going to get. I’m getting to the point now where I don’t know how many more years I have left. I’ve got to take advantage of the situation and we’ll be going hard."
Russo will be going hard, too — but not to excess. After Boucher fought another goalie in February, Russo took to Twitter, where he called his adversary a "coward" and stirred things up between the Thunder and an infrequent opponent.
That rivalry, according to Russo, will be shelved during the series in favor of a focus on the task at hand.
"Nothing matters anymore," Russo said. "It comes down to four games. It doesn’t matter who has the better players or better anything, it’s who works harder and who really wants it that much more."
Even if the Thunder wants to avoid fighting, the series could feature escalated tempers. Those develop over a long playoff series anyway, but Fort Wayne led the CHL in major penalties and may try to engage the Thunder.
The bad blood between Fort Wayne and Wichita might not rise to the level of Missouri and the Thunder, but it might not take long until it does.
"It’ll be a very physical series," Tetrault said. "We’ve got to take the body on them and be very physical against them. But we’ve got to stay out of the scrums and we’ve got to stay out of the box because they have a very good power play. Discipline will be key for our team. Just play hard between the whistles and never mind the stuff after the whistles and we should be fine."
Note — The Thunder is giving away free boomsticks for Saturday’s game. On Sunday, a tailgate party is scheduled for noon-4 p.m. at the Wichita Ice Center prior to Game 2. Former Heights basketball star and KU signee Perry Ellis will drop the ceremonial puck.