You know, NHL players, I’ll bet there are a lot of guys skating around with busted heads and missing teeth who would love to replace you. Guys who have spent years in the bushes of minor-league hockey dreaming of a chance that they know, in the backs of their minds, will never come.
Players who love the sport every bit as much as you, but have yet to bitten by the greed that permeates the sport at its highest level. And while the NHL is locked down and dark, the players who ride in buses to towns they’ve never heard of to play a game they love will be doing what they always do.
In an American sports culture drained emotionally by work stoppages, the NHL threatens its very existence by careening toward another missed season.
“It’s tough on both sides,’’ said Wichita Thunder coach Kevin McClelland, who played 588 games in the NHL from 1981-94. “It’s a shame that they’re not playing right now. Being a Canadian and growing up watching “Hockey Night in Canada” every Saturday night, I’m just wishing that they finally get together and get an agreement and get back to playing again.’’
McClelland, though, doesn’t have much time to wring his hands about the NHL’s situation. He’s been busy since the Thunder lost to Fort Wayne in the Central Hockey League championship series in the spring trying to put together a team that can go all the way.
Thanks to the NHL lockout, though, it’s been dicey. McClelland has an evolving roster with which to work as his team prepares for its season-opener Friday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
Eligible NHL players, he said, will try to stay sharp by playing in the American Hockey League, the highest form of U.S. minor-league hockey. That means some AHL players will be pushed down to the East Coast Hockey League, and some ECHL players will be pushed to the CHL.
“I’m still getting probably 20 to 30 calls a day and probably 30 e-mails a day,’’ McClelland said. “It’s confusing. I want to be loyal to these guys that I signed during the summer and I think that’s the way we’re going to go. But in the same breath, you can’t really pass on a good player who could come in and help your hockey club.’’
Even a guy like Alex Bourret, the Thunder’s most dynamic offensive player last season who signed with the Cincinnati Cyclones in the ECHL in August, could be available.
“He just got let go and he’s without a job now,’’ McClelland said. “But again, some of those guys we had last year have kind of moved on and as a coach I’ve kind of moved on, too. Maybe in a few days, you might see Alex here, you might not. I’m not a knee-jerk reaction guy; I’m going to see what I’ve got here first.’’
What McClelland has is 10 returning players who were keys to the Thunder’s success last season. They include four of the team’s top seven scorers: Matt Summers, Matt Robinson, RG Flath and Jarred Mohr as well as key defenders Travis Wright, Kevin Young and Andrew Martens, who played in 33 games last season.
McClelland knows Thunder fans are used to a high-flying, high-octane offensive style of player, one that typically helps the most offensive-minded of his players move on to higher levels of hockey. That’s OK, he’s not changing.
“I know our guys benefit from the way we play,’’ McClelland said. “But I don’t want to be a selfish coach who puts in a style where you can’t put up points and can’t get to the next level. You know it’s going to happen every year so you’re always looking to bring new guys in. That’s just the way it is at this level of hockey.’’
McClelland thinks newcomers Chad Painchaud, who played last season with the ECHL’s Chicago Express, and Ian Lowe, another ECHL player who was with Idaho in 2011-12, will help ignite the Thunder’s offense.
“And we have enough of our nucleus back that they’re going to show some of these new guys what to expect,’’ McClelland said. “It’s very demanding here and the goal is to produce a good hockey club for our fans.’’
McClelland, beginning his eighth year as a coach and third with the Thunder, thinks Wichita is a great hockey town and loves being here. He wants to be here a long time.
“Me and my family, we thoroughly enjoy it here,’’ he said. “Hopefully I’m going to try and get my green card, or whatever it is, so we can stay here. It’s a great community and quite frankly, you just don’t want to keep moving around all the time.’’
Even in the fickle profession of coaching, McClelland and the Thunder look like a long-term match.