Hockey is not the most popular sport in South Central Kansas, and the Wichita Thunder know that.
Entering his third season, Thunder coach Malcolm Cameron says he and the rest of the organization are quickly learning how to market to their audience.
“There were a number of years there where people were really down on hockey, wondering whether the franchise could turn it around,” he said. “I think now we’re back on a level playing field.
“People mostly just want their team to be competitive. I think we won 22 games at home last year, which was a franchise record in the ECHL. When people come to the rink, they want to be entertained. They want to see a good, exciting game with goals and fights, but when they leave, they also want to know their team had a chance to win.”
The Thunder are coming off a Mountain Division semifinal appearance, losing to the Colorado Eagles in six games. The 2017-18 season should give Wichita momentum heading into its third season of NHL-affiliated hockey.
The Thunder are the Edmonton Oilers’ third-tier farm team below the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors. With that, the team almost never looks the same. The 2017-18 season was an excellent example of that — and how Cameron and his staff have to work on the fly.
“I think we went through 46 guys last year,” he said. “That’s kind of crazy to think we were one of the top teams in the league for the first half of the year and made the playoffs, but we still went through 46 guys.”
In the ECHL, clubs have to almost re-create their teams from scratch each year as players see their contracts expire, get called up or are dropped. With that, Cameron said the 2018-19 Thunder roster is almost complete.
He said he has to become a recruiter from mid-May through the summer and earn players’ commitments for the season. To this point, here are the signings that have been announced:
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- Captain Forward Dyson Stevenson
- Defenseman Jeremy Beaudry
- Defenseman Keoni Texeira
- Forward Lane Bauer
- Defenseman Justin Lemcke
- Forward Colin Jacobs
- Forward Steven Iacobellis
- Forward Matt Schmalz
- Forward Mitch Maloney
Cameron said the Thunder have plenty of players fans should be excited about, starting with the “heart and soul” of the team, Dyson Stevenson, who won a pair of ECHL titles with the Allen Americans before coming to Wichita. Adding “real NHL talent” like 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward Matt Schmalz will certainly keep eyes locked on the ice, Cameron said.
The Thunder announced 20 players as part of their season-ending roster June 15, and Cameron said though only nine players have been publicly named, more are in the hopper.
“You want to build momentum over the course of the summer, so we usually do one a week,” he said. “We’ve got some big signings on the way — some guys I think people will be really excited about.”
Cameron said with all of the roster turnover in the league, the Thunder are fortunate to have a lot of players back from last year’s team.
The 2018-19 season will kick off Oct. 12 when the Thunder host the Idaho Steelheads, the Dallas Stars’ ECHL affiliate.