Wichita Thunder

Wichita Thunder delivers big hire

Kevin McClelland has accepted the challenge of revitalizing the struggling Wichita Thunder hockey franchise.

In a move expected to excite the restless fan base and instantly improve the team's reputation, the Thunder has hired McClelland as its new coach, two sources close to the team confirmed.

McClelland, a proven winner as a coach and player, is expected to be introduced at a news conference on Monday at Intrust Bank Arena.

McClelland appears to have all the attributes on Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno's wish list: He has experience, an impressive record and, by all accounts, a likable personality that fans will enjoy.

McClelland declined comment on Friday, as did Lomurno.

McClelland, the Central Hockey League coach of the year in 2007 and a four-time Stanley Cup champion as a player, is highly thought of around the CHL.

"The big thing is, he wins everywhere he goes, and he's such a genuine guy," said Rapid City coach Joe Ferras, this season's coach of the year. "We have so much respect for him. Wichita did their best recruiting job already by getting him as a coach.

"If Wichita hadn't signed him, I guarantee you that every team out there looking for a coach would have wanted to hire him."

Dan Wildfong, who coached Texas to the 2009 championship, described it as an "amazing hire" for Wichita. He said Thunder fans should expect a well-rounded team under McClelland.

"He'll have guys with skill, and he'll have hardworking guys," Wildfong said. "It won't be a soft team, I can tell you that. The players will give you everything they've got, or they probably won't be there very long."

The hiring of McClelland, a rugged winger for the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s, represents a dramatic change for the Thunder. The team's previous two coaches, Mark French and Brent Bilodeau, had no experience as head coaches at the professional level. Both were fired after failing to field winning teams.

By contrast, McClelland has been a head coach for five years in the CHL. The past four years, he has guided teams (Memphis, Mississippi, Colorado twice) to the playoffs.

He has experience at rebuilding a team, too. In his rookie season as a coach, Memphis went 22-37-5. The next year, the team was 39-19-6 — a turnaround that earned McClelland CHL coach of the year honors.

McClelland became available when his contract with league power Colorado was not renewed. Colorado finished the regular season 42-15-7, but the Eagles were swept by Bossier-Shreveport in the playoffs.

His CHL career record is 187-107-26.

McClelland faces a stiff challenge in Wichita. The Thunder is coming off one of the worst seasons (9-50-5) in CHL history and hasn't had a winning record since 2005-06.

Laredo coach Terry Ruskowski, who has won two CHL championships, seemed confident that McClelland can rebuild the Thunder.

"Wichita made a very, very good decision," Ruskowski said. "He knows the league, knows who to bring in. He's a great guy to coach against because you have to put on your best game plan. If you don't, you're not gonna win."