Thunder part-owner Rodney Steven and former coach Bryan Wells have heard from young Wichita hockey players who express disappointment over having to leave home to play the sport at a higher level.
Now with the financial footing to do something about it, the Thunder is establishing a junior league team that will begin play in September. The team, comprised of 16-to-20-year olds vying for college scholarships, will play games at the Wichita Ice Center and in the Western States Hockey League.
Wells, the team’s general manager, and the as-yet unnamed coach will travel the country looking for players and hold camps to discover possible recruits. But keeping budding hockey players from Wichita in the city is a major motivation for organizing the Junior Thunder.
"I’m excited about it," Wells said. "It’s going to be an opportunity that young kids have never had. Many of the kids that were able to play junior hockey had to go to Canada or to some of the other junior leagues in the country."
Wichita has never had a junior team in part because it has never had local ownership. When Rodney, Brandon and Johnny Steven bought the Thunder last August, they began thinking of ways to build the sport in a city that has a passionate fan base.
The junior team has been in the works for a while and will be officially announced by the Thunder today or tomorrow. Rodney Steven said the brothers’ ownership of the Ice Center necessitated more ways to use the arena and to increase popularity of ice sports.
"It’s creating more hockey players in town and more of a hockey base," Rodney Steven said. "More fans, more people supporting the sport of hockey. We really want to grow youth hockey. It’s a great sport that isn’t very prevalent in Kansas yet."
Steven and Wells mentioned the possibility of the Thunder supplying its own players through the junior team.
That’s a longshot because most 20-year-olds aren’t ready to play professionally, but as the team becomes more developed, Wichita hopes to send players to college on hockey scholarships while occasionally finding one who is prepared for CHL play.
"One day we could have a player or two that came from the (junior) team, which would be neat," Steven said.
Wells has done his part to get kids involved and more interested in hockey, coaching some as young as 2 years old and helping new players learn to skate.
Wells, who coached the Thunder from 1996-2001, has already contacted Thunder alumni in an effort to establish a recruiting base. The junior team is also connected to college coaches Wells formed relationships with when he coached.
"We’ve got over 500 alumni guys," Wells said. "We’ve already reached out to some of them and they’ll be helping us find some kids, too."
Another pipeline will be created with the youth team in Wichita, the Warriors, allowing its players to graduate to the Junior Thunder. Wells helped the process of establishing a junior team by expressing concerns that Wichita’s best players were forced to leave to play at that level.
"We did our due dilligence to find out what can be done and what is being done at the junior level," Wells said. "We figured it was a good opportunity to try to grow hockey in town."