The names aren’t surprising to Thunder coach Kevin McClelland, but some of the destinations are.
Stephen Schultz and Theo Peckham left the Thunder – Schultz for Germany in November, Peckham for Slovakia last month – as prime candidates to do so. Schultz was Wichita’s leading scorer and Peckham, the Thunder’s captain, had NHL experience as a defenseman.
McClelland figured they might find other opportunities, but not so far away.
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“It’s not tough to (accept),” McClelland said. “If a guy gets chance to go and make more money and probably play less games, it makes sense. When they commit here, you think they’re at least going to stay in North America.”
Defections have affected the Thunder this season but hardly hurt the team. The latest is forward Kenton Miller, Wichita’s third-leading scorer who was promoted to the American Hockey League this week.
The Thunder has found greater success in the immediate aftermath of departures, and in finding replacements. After Schultz left in December, Miller and Danick Gauthier increased their scoring as Wichita won four of the next five.
Following Peckham’s departure in late December, the Thunder won four in a row. New captain Ian Lowe has served Wichita well in that role, providing off-ice leadership while becoming the team’s most reliable scorer. He has 36 points in 36 games and has scored in 11 of the last 12 games.
Wichita has hit on multiple in-season signings. Gauthier was added on waivers after one game with Orlando and was named to the ECHL All-Star team last week. Ian Duval, a 26-year-old rookie, has 18 points in 21 games. Defenseman Travis Granbois has made an impact in his first two games.
“It’s difficult because there’s not a lot of people who are out there right now. Most guys have jobs,” McClelland said of the task of finding players during the season. “It’s difficult, but you have to do your due diligence and you’re on the phone all the time. I’ve got some leads on some players right now and I’m trying to finish them off, but nothing ready yet.”
Around the ECHL
▪ The Central Division, which includes Wichita and six other Central Hockey League holdovers, is the only one of four ECHL races with a gap of more than five points between the top two teams. With 53 points, Allen leads the Thunder by 11 points, and the Americans have played three fewer games. Fort Wayne, Florida and Idaho own slimmer division leads.
▪ Jack Combs of Allen, tied for the league scoring lead with 22 goals, left the team to play in Europe, becoming the fourth Americans forward to leave Allen this season. Combs led the league with six game-winning goals and seven power-play assists.
The only team to miss the playoffs in 1988-89, the ECHL’s first season, was the Virginia Lancers. The star on that team was Mike Chighisola, who had 83 points and 122 penalty minutes in 59 games. Chighisola apparently ended his career with the Thunder in 1996, but he returned 15 years later for three games in the upstart Federal Hockey League at age 44.
Days gone by
The Toledo Storm was the ECHL’s first and only repeat champion, winning in 1993 and ’94. On Nov. 5, 1993, the Storm (now the Walleye) beat Louisville 11-10, representing the most goals scored in an ECHL game.
Tap of the stick
Thunder players spent Tuesday visiting with children in the pediatric unit and NICU at Via Christi St. Francis, giving them stuffed animals collected in the Teddy Bear Toss night at Intrust Bank Arena on Dec. 13. More than 2,000 toys were donated by fans.
The combined rating for the Thunder’s five leading scorers – Lowe, Gauthier, Miller, Jared Walker and Duval.
He said it
“We’ve got a good core group of leaders in that room. We wouldn’t like to be down as many times as we have been – I think we come out and start games slower than we like and before you know it we’re down a couple goals. But we’ve got a good captain in (Lowe) and he rallies the troops in intermissions and we keep getting better period-by-period every game.”
— Thunder goaltender Tyler Bunz