Wichita Thunder

Wichita Thunder: Kevin McClelland specializes in winning

A veteran of the hockey wars, Kevin McClelland certainly knew better, but he lost his focus for just an instant during the brawl, and big Jim Peplinski took full advantage.

Peplinski, then a 6-foot-3 forward with the Calgary Flames, landed a hard blow on McClelland, a 6-foot winger for the Edmonton Oilers.

"He popped me right in the beak and broke my nose," said McClelland, grinning as he recalled the punch from 25 years ago.

That McClelland is old-school cool enough to use the word "beak" and sound perfectly naturally is impressive. So is the rest of the tale.

"I just looked at my bench and said, 'Guys that didn't hurt,' and turned around and started fighting again."

True story. You could look it up in one of Wayne Gretzky's books.

There is no shortage of similar stories involving McClelland, a rugged, fearless and physical player who thrived as a self-described "foot soldier" for the Oilers' dynasty of the mid 1980s.

Kevin Lowe, former Oilers' defenseman and general manager, called McClelland, pound for pound, the toughest and meanest teammate he ever played with.

Terry Ruskowski, a former NHL center and current coach of the Central Hockey League's Laredo Bucks, described McClelland as "a very scary player to play against." Both could handle themselves on the ice, but they never fought each other.

"I'm not that stupid," Ruskowski said.

McClelland, who is putting his well-documented determination to use as the new coach of the Wichita Thunder, appeared in 588 NHL games, producing 180 points and 1,672 penalty minutes.

A gifted goal scorer in juniors, McClelland completely changed his game when, in December of 1983, he was traded to the Oilers, a team he said was filled with "all these guys who could light the lamp."

It became McClelland's job to protect them.

"Hey, I knew I wasn't gonna bump Gretzky or (Mark) Messier," he said. "I just wanted to be a piece of that puzzle, you know what I mean? I took my job seriously. I wasn't the biggest guy — I was only 192 pounds fighting guys 230 — but I held my own. I went into a fight scared — not afraid that I was gonna get hurt, but afraid that I was going to embarrass my teammates or let the other team get momentum because I took a beating.

"I got knocked kooky a couple times. Back then, it was different. Concussions weren't monitored, so we went to the bench, took a couple smelling salts and went back out there."

Beginning in 1984, the Oilers won four Stanley Cup titles in a span of five years. Surprisingly, the player often credited with the most-important goal of the dynasty wasn't The Great One, or Messier, or Paul Coffey.

Instead, McClelland, a player who was told by a Pittsburgh coach when he was a rookie to give up hockey and become a plumber, scored the only goal in the opening game of the 1984 finals against the defending champion New York Islanders.

The Oilers went on to win the Cup in five games, and Lowe called the goal "the defining moment" for the franchise.

McClelland deflects credit, stressing that fellow forwards Dave Hunter and Pat Hughes were the real stars on the play.

"My name is always attached to that goal, but they were in there crashing and banging in the corners," McClelland said. "I just happened to come popping through the slot and got a pass and just directed it to the net."

It's vintage McClelland, who tries to avoid attention. At a recent practice, for example, he suggested that a reporter "go talk to the boys" instead of him. Saying he is not a "flashy guy," he doesn't wear any of his Stanley Cup rings.

"I've had my career," he said. "It's about these guys (the Thunder players) now. I know what the rigors of a hockey season are like. If there is anything I can do to help these guys along, that's what I want to do."

Thunder goalie Ian Keserich, who also played for McClelland in Mississippi, said that McClelland is a "straight shooter" and a player's coach. Despite his fiery nature as a player, McClelland has a calming influence as a coach, Keserich said.

"He's not the type to scream or throw sticks," Keserich said. "But he's definitely got that winning attitude. He's just got a great swagger to him, and he passes it on to everybody else."

That the 48-year-old McClelland enjoys challenges is a very good thing, given that the Thunder suffered through one of the worst seasons in CHL history last year, winning just nine games and finishing last in nearly every statistical category.

Predictably, McClelland revamped the roster, bringing back only three players.

McClelland said that he and his family (wife Wendy and three sons) enjoy Wichita, and that he is satisfied that he has recruited players capable of turning around the franchise's losing ways.

Ruskowski, Laredo's coach, said that the current Thunder team reflects McClelland's personality in that the roster has several tough, gritty players.

Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno, a fan of physical hockey, agreed.

"I couldn't be happier with Kevin," Lomurno said. "I have no doubts at all that he is the perfect coach for the Wichita Thunder."

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