After playing a team-high 64 games for the Thunder last season, Matt DeBlouw returned to the Wichita this year still hoping to fit in.
DeBlouw, from Chesterfield, Mich., stands out in multiple ways. He is the only current Thunder player to play a full season with the team – the other returners were in-season pickups – and the only one from the mainland United States.
The 24-year-old forward, who shares a native country with Alaskan teammate Lane Bauer, is helping the Thunder’s turnaround. He has nine points in 16 games for the Thunder (14-2-2), showing his decision to return to coach Malcolm Cameron after last season’s last-place finish to be a wise one.
“I like stability,” DeBlouw said. “I don’t like going into an environment that I don’t feel comfortable with. Starting the year last year, it was a little bit uncomfortable. I had other coaches calling me and recruiting me, but Malcolm just gave me his honest opinions and he gave me the utmost respect, so coming back I was comfortable with the team and with the city.”
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There was a bittersweet nature to DeBlouw’s first season in Wichita, also his professional debut. He proved, after four collegiate seasons at Michigan State, that he could play at this level, tying for the team lead with 38 points.
The other side was the Thunder’s roster upheaval and consistent losing. DeBlouw watched several teammates promoted to the American Hockey League, and as few players returned from the AHL to reinforce the roster, DeBlouw was suddenly a centerpiece.
Pressure built and DeBlouw couldn’t avoid negative thoughts from personal or team slumps that proved increasingly difficult to stop.
“I went on a (14)-game slide with no goals, but at the same time, we’re winning, so I don’t even notice until Coach brings it up,” DeBlouw said. “Last year, I didn’t really realize if I had a goal or was doing well on a weekend, because I was more (irritated) that we were just losing.”
DeBlouw was assured that wouldn’t be the case in Cameron’s second season, and Cameron was right. Wichita leads the Mountain Division and is tied for the ECHL lead with 30 points.
The Thunder is doing it with a roster nearly full of Canadians, hardly an anomaly because of the hockey’s popularity in Canada. DeBlouw and Massachusetts goalie Shane Starrett were the only mainland U.S. players before Starrett was called up to Bakersfield on Thursday.
It’s not much of a culture shock because Michigan is near Canada and Canadians will populate the majority of hockey rosters. But DeBlouw’s differences have shown up in some interesting ways.
“It’s kind of funny that I’m in the United States, the heart of the United States, and I have no other American on my team,” DeBlouw said. “Even with the lingo that used. I grew up saying dinner and they say supper. For Thanksgiving, it was tough to not be around my fiancé or my family. For (the Canadians), it was just another road trip, it was another night in a hotel room.”
There has been little issue in blending in on the ice, though. The Thunder has one player, Mark MacMillan, among the league’s top 20 scorers but 11 players with at least nine points.
DeBlouw has been the only player to see the shift in real time. He’s seen Cameron become more lenient and a new set of teammates with winning traits.
“We get more freedom to take days off,” DeBlouw said. “Last year our bodies were going through the exact same things, but we also were not doing the things we needed to do to win games. During games you get tired and fatigued. This year, guys are able to finish out periods and finish out games, which is leading to wins.”
Kalamazoo at Thunder
- When: 7 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Intrust Bank Arena
- Records: Kalamazoo 7-6-1-1, Thunder 14-2-2-0
- Broadcast: wichitathunder.com