The Wichita Thunder was accepted into the ECHL on Tuesday along with six former Central Hockey League teams. It might take a year for some changes to be noticed.
Wichita was one of the original CHL franchises when the league was revived in 1992, and the Thunder has never played outside of its confines. That will change this season as the Thunder moves to the ECHL – a league formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, now just by the acronym – along with Allen (Texas), Brampton (Ontario), Missouri (Independence), Quad City (Ill.), Rapid City (S.D..) and Tulsa to create a Double-A mega-league.
The ECHL season begins Oct. 17. Because the consolidation happened so late in the offseason, its effects on the Thunder won’t be all-encompassing. Wichita will still play exclusively – or almost exclusively – against other former CHL teams, including its opener Oct. 25 against Allen at Intrust Bank Arena. The schedule – which isn’t finalized – jumps to 72 games from 66.
ECHL meetings in Chicago are ongoing and will cover scheduling throughout the rest of the week with plans for it to be finalized either Friday or Monday. Thunder season tickets, which were on hold without finalized opponents, will be mailed soon after. Single-game tickets remain on sale.
“With the timing of this, the majority of the schedule will (remain) as it is,” said Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno, who attended the Tuesday meeting along with co-owner Rodney Steven. “There is interest from many teams to do crossovers, and over the next two days we will be discussing ways to intermingle the schedule for this upcoming season.”
The CHL has crumbled over the last two seasons, dwindling from 14 teams in 2011-12 to 10 each of the past two years. It was to drop to seven this season as Arizona, Denver and St. Charles (Mo.) all suspended operations, but about two months ago discussions of a consolidation with the ECHL began.
The CHL schedule wasn’t released until late August while negotiations went on. The possibility became more realistic three weeks ago, when officials from both leagues met in St. Louis, and this week each CHL team was presented to ECHL owners for acceptance into the league. All were accepted, moving the ECHL from 21 to 28 teams.
There were reports during the process that Tulsa and Wichita would not remain in the league beyond this season, but Lomurno said those were false, and that beginning next year the teams will play a more integrated schedule.
“We’re playing in a phenomenal league,” Lomurno said. “… We’re now in a national league that stretches throughout the country. We’re getting some of our old rivals back, like Evansville, Fort Wayne, Colorado. A lot to be excited about.”
ECHL rosters are comprised more of young prospects than those of the CHL. Each of the ECHL holdovers is affiliated with at least one NHL team, with 28 NHL teams represented, and with at least one affiliated in the Triple-A AHL.
The Thunder doesn’t have an official affiliation with the AHL or the NHL, but has loose affiliations with both, as players were assigned to Wichita last season by the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Wichita won’t have an affiliation this season because it is too late for such an agreement to be reached.
Roster rules are also different in the ECHL, slanted toward younger rosters with stricter limits on veterans. The Thunder must decide which veterans to re-sign to ECHL agreements, since all former CHL players became free agents upon the consolidation. Thunder captain Andrew Martens, a veteran defenseman, announced his retirement on Tuesday.
“If we could have, we would have gotten this done sooner,” Lomurno said. “The time frame, the paperwork, and getting everyone together for a formal meeting, this is when it happened. Better late than never.”
The consolidation ends the CHL after 22 years. The league grasped for stability in recent years, with Rodney, Johnny and Brandon Steven purchasing the Allen and Tulsa franchises, and with Rodney Steven leading a group of CHL owners in the purchase of the league last year.
The teams found their footing with Tuesday’s announcement, which will help to unclog the pipeline that sends players from the minor leagues to the NHL.
“It’s no secret that the CHL had lost a few teams each of the last two years,” Lomurno said. “We were down to seven teams, which was the fewest the league has had since 1996. We felt that the timing was right to enter talks with the ECHL to see what it would take to become on Double-A super-league.
“Initially, I don’t think anyone imagined that this was going to happen for this season. But as talks heated up, it became clear that we might as well get the ball rolling and jump in for this season.”