In 2011, Wichita’s Steven brothers — Rodney, Brandon and Johnny — purchased the Thunder hockey team. In 2012 and 2013, the Thunder were the Central Hockey League runner-ups.
OK, this is going well.
It’s not going well now, though. The Thunder, which with six other CHL franchises joined the ECHL for the 2014-15 season, is dead last in points this season and has won 9 of 42 games. Attendance is sparse and, frankly, nobody is talking about this team except to express mild frustration with the state of things.
The Thunder has been around since 1992, plays its home games at Intrust Bank Arena and built a strong fan base over nearly 25 years. The same coach who led Wichita to second-place finishes recently, Kevin McClelland, is still at the helm. So is the general manager, Joel Lomurno.
So what’s wrong? Is the ECHL too much?
Well, the other six teams who made the switch are a combined 123-87-13-10, led by Missouri’s remarkable 31-5-1-1 record.
Wichita is one of a handful of ECHL teams not affiliated with a National Hockey League franchise. But those in the know discount that as a viable reason for the team’s struggles.
Could the Thunder’s issues be more systemic?
In 2013, the Steven brothers rescued the Tulsa Oilers franchise from possibly folding and did the same with Allen in 2014. Noble? Or a conflict of interest? All three teams play in the same division of the ECHL and battle one another numerous times during a season.
The ECHL has no problem with the tri-ownership of the Steven brothers and their Steven Brothers Sports Management. It was approved, ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said, by the league’s board of governors.
“If we’ve got a business operator that is doing a good job, running a good business and can replicate that in another market, from a business perspective there’s no reason we should not have dual or tri-ownership in the league,” McKenna said.
But what about the competition?
Isn’t it fair to wonder how much attention the Steven brothers are giving to their three franchises? Does one franchise get favoritism over the others?
Absolutely yes, Rodney Steven said. But first he points out that he and his brothers came to the rescue of two teams that might have folded and that one of them, Allen, won the ECHL championship last year.
“It was never our intent to own three teams,” said Steven, a diverse Wichita businessman who also owns a car dealership and Genesis Health Club. “Literally, we bought the other franchises because of our love for Wichita. It’s that simple. We wanted to keep Wichita in a competitive and viable league and our goal was accomplished.”
Back in the day, Chicago businessman Horn Chen owned the CHL and all of its franchises. McKenna said there have been other examples of owners with more than one team in the ECHL, though the Steven brothers are the only current case.
As for Rodney Steven’s priority, he says it’s the Thunder. Wichita is where he lives and the Thunder were the first franchised purchased by the brothers.
“Again, we did this because of our love for Wichita,” Steven said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that even when Tulsa and Allen come to Intrust Bank Arena for games who the owners want to win that game. That’s no secret.”
Steven said he had a conversation with Allen coach Steve Martinson in the locker room after a recent game.
“He tells me, ‘Rodney, it’s OK. My dad has multiple kids and you like some kids more than others, but you still love them all.’ ”
Thunder fans don’t like Tulsa and they despise Allen. Yet their team is owned by the same guys who own those teams. That’s strange to me and creates too many conflicts to be a healthy thing for the ECHL. The competition matters. Winning matters. At least it should.
There’s no doubt the ECHL is a big step up for the Thunder and the other former CHL teams who help make up the 28-team league, which spreads from shore to shore and from the South into Canada and Alaska. This is a great place for Wichita to be, but the losing is draining. The Thunder has played itself out of the ECHL playoff picture and created concern for the future.
Is McClelland’s future in doubt? Steven said he hasn’t discussed a contract for next season with the coach yet. Could there be a front-office shakeup? Steven gives no indication that he or his brothers are considering selling the Tulsa and Allen franchises to local owners.
There are rules in place, McKenna said, to keep Wichita from making trades with Tulsa or Allen. But I don’t like that, either. Wichita should be able to make deals with any franchise in the league, if there’s a desire.
“From a competitive point of view,” McKenna said, “our board is comfortable that the competitive balance is maintained.”
McClelland said he supports the Steven brothers.
“I decided a long time ago I was going to be loyal to these guys,” he said. “I was loyal as a hockey player, too, which is probably why my nose looks the way it does.”
The Steven brothers have mostly been good for hockey in Wichita. They rescued two failing franchises that are among the Thunder’s biggest rivals. I give them credit for all of that. It just seems strange that three of the four franchises in an ECHL Central Division of the Western Conference are owned by the same three guys.
Evansville at Thunder
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Intrust Bank Arena
Records: Evansville 15-19-3-1, Wichita 9-25-4-4