To this point, the best indicator of how Thunder coach Kevin McClelland handles losing is his attitude following postseason defeats. In other words, McClelland doesn’t lose that often.
This season has been an unwelcome change of pace. After a litany of injuries to start the season, Wichita has never maintained consistency, and if the season ended today — after 39 games — the Thunder (16-19-4) would not qualify for the playoffs.
What has been consistent, though, is McClelland’s demeanor. Faced with an unfamiliar situation, McClelland hasn’t strayed from his usual approach, perhaps because it has worked so often in the past.
“Anyone can just jump on the bandwagon,” McClelland said. “When you’re in this profession for the long haul, you know that you’re going to have times like this, but you’ve got to stay the course.”
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McClelland’s only previous losing season as a head coach for a professional team came in his first year, when he guided Memphis of the Central Hockey League to a 22-37-5 record in 2005-06.
McClelland has remained in the CHL ever since, first leading Memphis to a 17-win improvement before taking Mississippi, Colorado and Wichita to the playoffs. He has three finals appearances but hasn’t won a championship.
All of McClelland’s hardware came during his 588-game NHL career, where he won four Stanley Cup championships with the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. In the seven NHL seasons in which McClelland played at least 50 games, his teams advanced to the postseason six times.
That’s what makes this season, in which the Thunder returned several key players from two near champions, so confounding.
“It’s been a very taxing year, obviously,” McClelland said. “You’re going to have years like that, and it’s not going to make sense. As a player, I’ve been on teams that have had years like that, and obviously I’ve been on teams that won. It’s weird. It’s hard to explain.”
An outsider would be hard-pressed to spot differences between the atmosphere created and nurtured by McClelland this year and in the past two years, because even the insiders can’t pinpoint many.
Most of the observed changes in McClelland, in fact, have been positive. With more young players, he is spending more time teaching the sport rather than managing self-sustained veterans. He’s been more talkative and forthcoming with reporters.
The adversity may be damaging McClelland from within, but all appearances are that he is handling it gracefully.
“He always speaks up when it’s needed, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice,” Thunder forward Matt Summers said. “He’s done a lot of teaching, too, because look at our record. He has definitely been vocal about telling us what needs to be done. He adjusts to the situation to get the best out of his players, and he’s good at doing that.”
“…He’s true to his guys. He sticks within the guys to find the right combinations.”
That mutual trust may be what the Thunder needs to prevent saddling McClelland with his second losing season as a coach. If Wichita continues to lose, McClelland will likely continue to keep up appearances, even though his consistency provides a much-needed sense of urgency.
“You hate losing,” Mclelland said reflectively. “You get put in charge to be successful and win a put a good product for these fans in Wichita, which are great fans. It’s not a good feeling. I don’t like it at all. I don’t accept it, I’ll never accept it, and that’s just the way it is.”