Wichita Thunder

Kansas Coliseum was home to Thunder greats

The most important bargaining session in Wichita Thunder history wrapped up quickly, with both parties more than pleased with the outcome.

On one side, there was newly hired Doug Shedden, a rookie head coach with a fierce desire to win. Jim "Knuckles" Latos and Ron Handy represented the players, who, after spending nearly two months under the strict rule of ousted coach Gary Fay, simply wanted their freedom.

Goalie Bobby Desjardins was at that meeting during the franchise's inaugural 1992-93 season.

"I remember Latos and Handy saying, 'Sheds, if we start winning, there's no more curfews, and we want to start having some fun, OK?' " Desjardins recalled.

Shedden, of course, accepted those terms immediately, thus turning loose a suddenly motivated collection of the toughest, most talented players the Central Hockey League has ever known.

"We started winning, and we never stopped," Desjardins said. "There was none of this being in bed by 11, either. There was a lot of partying, a lot of good times."

And a remarkable number of victories.

Completing a surprisingly quick turnaround, the Thunder won a championship in 1993-94 and another in 1994-95, compiling a two-year regular season record of 84-36-10.

Due to the current sorry state of the team, which has lost a franchise record 18 consecutive games, the Kansas Coliseum has become a gloomy, almost depressing place on game nights. So there seems to be little sentimentality surrounding the Thunder's final weekend in the Brown Barn before the team moves to Intrust Bank Arena.

But back in the day, with players like Brent Sapergia and Paul Jackson scoring at will, "Knuckles" policing the ice, and Desjardins stopping shot after shot in front of the net, the Coliseum was a hockey fan's dream. In those two championship seasons, the Thunder went an impressive 50-10-5 at home.

Desjardins remembers the first game in the Coliseum, a match-up with Forth Worth on Nov. 4, 1992. A rookie from Canada who had starred in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Desjardins was stunned when 5,486 fans showed up for a minor league game in Wichita, Kan.

"We were overwhelmed to see that many people come out," said Desjardins, who backed up Alan Harvey during the 6-4 win. "Wichita isn't that big of a town, and it didn't look like much of a hockey town. It took a lot of us by surprise."

While undersized, the quick and durable Desjardins is regarded as the best goalie in the 18-year history of the Thunder franchise. The 5-foot-5, 170-pounder was named CHL rookie of the year, and followed by winning the league's MVP award in 1993-94 after going 38-12-5.

Now for the untold story: Had Desjardins known his geography a little better, if he had been slightly more patient, he might have ended up — brace yourself, Thunder fans — as a member of the despised Oklahoma City Blazers.

In 1992, after playing in the prestigious Memorial Cup for three straight years, Desjardins had decided to go pro with the Blazers. But after too many hours behind the wheel of his car, a blurry-eyed Desjardins, who was unfamiliar with the Midwest landscape, finally called his agent.

"I thought I was at the end of the world," he said. "I said, 'You gotta get me a team closer.' So my agent called the day before camp started and talked to Gary Fay in Wichita. He didn't know who I was.

"Had I known Oklahoma City was only a few hours away, things might have been a lot different."

Desjardins shared the ice with the greatest players in team history, but he considers Sapergia the best. Uncommonly talented but prone to losing his composure, Sapergia scored 146 points in 78 games with the Thunder. He also racked up 594 penalty minutes.

Sapergia's intermission predictions are the stuff of legend.

"We'd come into the dressing room a goal behind, and he'd say 'Don't worry, boys, I'm gonna score a couple and then do something to get kicked out.' And guess what? He would do it," Desjardins said. "He was just a phenomenal talent."

Desjardins also marvels at the abilities of Jackson, who scored 135 points in 59 games in 1993-94. Through 37 games that season, he had 50 goals.

"Paul Jackson, that guy could score from anywhere," Desjardins said. "He was a tiny little guy with a bad attitude — not a lot of fun to be around — but he could put the puck in the net."

Now 42, Desjardins has made his home in Wichita. He and wife Dana have an 11-year-old daughter, Gabrielle. Desjardins, who earned his master's degree in sports administration after his playing days were over, is co-owner of an office supplies store.

Although his No. 35 jersey hangs from the Coliseum rafters, Desjardins seldom attends Thunder games these days. In fact, the last one he can recall taking in was last season when former teammate Rob Weingartner had his number retired.

Even so, Desjardins has misgivings about the Thunder leaving the Coliseum, fearing the new arena is too big to recreate the atmosphere of the more-intimate old Barn.

Desjardins remains in awe of the Coliseum crowds, who showed up in large numbers to cheer on the greatest hockey talent Wichita will likely ever see.

"The Coliseum crowds were always great, and we appreciated it," he said. "We knew we weren't going to the NHL. We knew our shot at the show as gone, but we still had some hockey left in us. We still loved winning."