By the time Tom Roulston first played for the Thunder in 1994, he was already a veteran of Wichita hockey.
As a member of the Edmonton Oilers organization in the early 1980s, Roulston was one of many who stopped with the Wichita Wind before advancing to the NHL, where Roulston went on to play 195 games. He was once traded for former Thunder coach Kevin McClelland.
With the Wind, Roulston made his mark as one of the best goal scorers in the Central Hockey League and proved his worth as a viable NHL hopeful. He returns to the ice on Saturday along with 24 other former Thunder players for the team’s alumni game at Intrust Bank Arena that celebrates the franchise’s 25th anniversary. The game starts at 5 p.m. before the Thunder’s 7 p.m. home game against Missouri.
“Those were the best years of my hockey life without a doubt, playing in Wichita,” the 59-year-old Roulston said. “Not only because of my personal success, but because of the team that I played with.”
The Wind gave a home to several Oilers players, many of whom, like Roulston, spent a lot of time shuttling between the destinations. Wichita wasn’t a hockey hotbed at the time, though, so few flocked to the Kansas Coliseum for the Wind’s brief, three-year history.
They missed Roulston scoring 63 goals and 107 points in 69 games in 1980-81, when the Wind lost in the CHL Finals. They missed players such as Don Ashby, who once scored 10 points in an NHL game.
“We were kind of lost at sea, that team,” Roulston said. “The Wings, the indoor soccer franchise, they were major league and they had this town. They sold out the Kansas Coliseum, and I felt like we were just an afterthought at that time.
“Unfortunately, there were some really high-level talented players who played in Wichita in 1980. Some guys who went on to be Stanley Cup champions and Olympic champions. There were some really great players that nobody really ever got to see.”
Roulston essentially played out an entire career before returning to Wichita, which wasn’t in his plans. The Thunder began in 1992 and Roulston, then retired, never considered a comeback.
In 1994, Roulston remained at peace with retirement when Thunder coach Doug Shedden, Roulston’s former Pittsburgh Penguins roommate, convinced Roulston to join the team for a road trip while Roulston was working through a divorce.
“He said, ‘It would be good for you. I know you’re in a rut, I know you’re feeling kind of down. Why don’t you join us for a road trip?’ ” Roulston said. “He said, ‘I promise I won’t play you. I have 12 guys, I need some bodies on the bench. Throw on your equipment, sit on the bench, I promise I won’t play you.’
“About 30 seconds into the first game down on Tulsa he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Rolly, get out there.’ ”
Roulston, nicknamed “The Fossil” by younger teammates, helped the Thunder to the playoffs, then the 37-year-old dominated the postseason to guide the Thunder to the first of back-to-back championships. They remain only titles in the franchise’s 25 years.
Roulston finally did retire for good in 1995. That final year impacted Roulston similarly to 1980. He grew fond of Wichita and, like many other former Thunder players, has never left. He has worked here as a financial adviser for more than 20 years.
“Wichita is a welcoming community,” Roulston said. “Everybody appreciated the hockey players in the community. There has been an inordinately large number of guys who have hung around this town and made a life here.”
Missouri at Thunder
- When: 7 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Intrust Bank Arena
- Records: Missouri 31-28-3-5, Wichita 18-41-5-1
- Broadcast: wichitathunder.com