As a member of the Oklahoma City Blazers from 2007 to 2009, Justin Sawyer swore to himself that he would never be on the other side of their rivalry with the Thunder.
Sawyer never was, since Oklahoma City moved its hockey franchise to the AHL in 2010, but the first-year Thunder player had to compromise himself somewhat to even play for Wichita.
Since Oklahoma City left the CHL, Wichita has been without a blood feud. Tulsa can likely be classified as the Thunder’s most personal rivalry, but the most intense one is probably with Missouri.
The Mavericks ousted the Thunder in the first round of the playoffs last season. Wichita and Missouri players might not harbor the burning hatred that Oklahoma City and the Thunder once shared, but give it time.
Wichita has taken pleasure in beating the Thunder in five of seven meetings this season, and the conflict has escalated during the past two seasons. The teams meet tonight at Intrust Bank Arena, where the Mavericks beat Wichita last Sunday.
"The way the scheduling works out, we play them so many times and you develop a rivalry with them," said Sawyer, a Thunder defenseman. "When you play the same players every game, you tend to dislike them strongly. I think that’s what’s happening here."
Sawyer hasn’t seen the rivalry at its peak, when the teams, then division opponents, met in the postseason. The Mavericks were clearly superior during the regular season, but Wichita fought to send the five-game series to the limit before falling.
Wichita’s primary goal in restocking its roster for this season was to win the CHL championship, but part of that was motivation to beat the Mavericks. The teams are opposite conferences and can only meet in the finals.
“We had some pretty good battles in the regular season, but I think it kind of came to a boil in the playoffs,” Thunder forward Matt Robinson said. “It’s always a good atmosphere when we play in their building and it’s a good atmosphere in our building when we play them. I think our fans get into it.”
Robinson is one of few holdovers from last year, but he said it hasn’t been difficult to get the newcomers emotionally invested in the games against the Mavericks.
"All the new players, just playing (Missouri) the first couple times, realize just how big the rivalry is between us," Robinson said. The games this season have been heated, but perhaps not as much as the Thunder would like. Missouri has backed off in engaging Wichita in the physical style the Thunder prefers.
"We usually bully them and they end up being soft against us," Sawyer said. "I think they grip the sticks a little tighter and it gives our guys a lot more room. We just have the swagger going on and we feel like we know we can beat them."
The Thunder-Mavericks rivalry has all the right components — two capable teams, fan interest, dislike among the players.
And, as is evident by Sawyer’s thoughts — fighting words.
"It’s bad blood," Robinson said. "We don’t like them and obviously they don’t like us. It’s very physical and a heated battle with a lot of emotions. (Fans) love it. I think those are the games they mark down on their calendar because they know they’re going to get physical, exciting, fast games."
Wichita 3, Missouri 2
First period — 1, Wichita, Summers (Seiberl, Trudel), 5:54 (pp). 2, Missouri, Courtney (Pszenyczny), 8:22 (pp). 3, Wichita, Robinson (Davis, Beauregard), 16:26. Penalties — Dicskon, Missouri (boarding), 4:01; Sawyer, Wichita (cross checking), 7:35; Wight, Wichita (interference), 19:42.
Second period — none. Penalties — Good, Missouri (fighting major), 10:28; Donaghy, Wichita (fighting major), 10:28; Mohr, Wichita (tripping), 14:39.
Third period — 4, Wichita, Robinson (Beauregard, Seibel), 12:18. 5, Missouri, Simoes (Hogg, Schafer), 13:54. Penalties — none.
Power plays — Wichita 1 for 1, Missouri 1 for 3.
Shots — Wichita 7-9-8—24. Missouri 10-14-13—37.
Goalies — Wichita, Russo, 37 shots-35 saves; Missouri, Effinger, 24-21.
T — 2:21. A — 5,800.