Kevin McClelland joked that he spent part of Saturday afternoon on hold, awaiting a shipment of hockey players.
In most other Octobers, there would be no wondering about when and where players would be arriving – especially for McClelland, the Thunder’s coach and arguably one of the best recruiters in Double-A hockey.
But with the absorption last week of the Thunder’s Central Hockey League by the ECHL, teams from the former CHL are scrambling to align with the ECHL’s roster rules and add players who fit into what has been described as a younger, faster Double-A league.
The Thunder has already been significantly affected. Finding itself over the limit for veterans in the ECHL – which allows four veterans compared to the CHL’s six – Wichita has let go of experienced players Jon Booras and Matt Summers, sending both to Tulsa. Captain Andrew Martens, a defenseman, retired.
Wichita begins an abbreviated training camp Monday and opens the season Oct. 25 at home against Allen.
“Not everyone is going to be happy with decisions,” McClelland said of the new method of roster building forced upon him by the league change. “These ones here were very, very tough decisions. We designed it so guys would have jobs moving forward. In the hockey world, there’s no guarantees.”
The consolidation of the two Double-A leagues moves hockey toward a minor-league system like that of baseball, in which each major-league team is represented by one affiliate in all levels of the minors.
The Thunder, like three of the six other former CHL teams, is without a parent club in the Triple-A American Hockey League or the NHL – which could change as soon as next year – so Wichita won’t earn the services of as many potential NHL prospects as most of its ECHL competitors.
Loose affiliations and working agreements could still help the Thunder, though. This week it was sent goalie Tyler Bunz from Edmonton of the NHL, and Wichita signed former NHL defenseman Theo Peckham, who may soon be on his way back up the pipeline.
“We heard wind of this (consolidation) and we had to plan,” McClelland said. “Martens called me last week that he was retiring, so we had to make an adjustment there. We had to make sure the back end doesn’t get depleted, and when you take Martens out, that’s a huge hole right from the start.
“Peckham joined our hockey club, and I think he’s a big addition. Now, how long he’ll be here, who knows? He’s got the ability to go on and play at a higher level, that’s for sure, and hopefully he’ll get that opportunity.”
The Thunder maintained mostly the same core last season following two straight trips to the CHL finals, but this summer and fall Wichita underwent a major overhaul after missing the postseason. Part of that was bringing back Alex Bourret, a star on the finals team of 2011-12.
Wichita is replacing four of its top six scorers in Booras, Martens, Tomas Klempa and Matt Robinson. RG Flath is the top-scoring returning forward, having scored 44 points in 64 games. Bourret and Nikita Kashirsky, a Russian forward with time in the ECHL and the AHL, are likely to pick up some of the scoring slack.
“You had your team, now it’s going to take a dramatic change,” McClelland said. “…Camp’s not long. We start Monday and I’ve got to have my season-opening roster in by Wednesday. I’m going to have two days to look at all 30 guys. This might be the year where I sit upstairs and let (assistant Jason Duda) run practices.”