Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Familiar faces? Not many on this roster

Last season, the disaster it was, didn't produced many Wichita Thunder highlights. The best was when it all ended and everybody could go home and lick their wounds.

Nine wins, 50 losses, five overtime losses.

The Thunder lost 16 more games than the next-losingest team in the Central Hockey League.

But the hope around the Thunder's training camp is that last season will become a distant memory this season as Thunder fans are awash in a new coach , a refurbished league and a bunch of new players since most of the old players really weren't getting the job done.

In fact, coach Kevin McClelland has juggled the roster so much, he's probably not even sure of the names of the players he'll be putting on the ice for Friday's season opener at Tulsa and for a return engagement at Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday.

In fact, only three players who were with the Thunder last season are back: defensemen Bobby Hughes and Jason Woll and goaltender Ian Keserich, who impressed the team with his tough-nosed approach after being acquired in a trade with Mississippi in January.

As tough as Keserich's nose was, he was just 1-19-1 in goal thanks to an anemic offense and a team beaten down by its own ineptitude. If anybody needed a fresh start, it was Keserich, who will be in the net Friday.

Things got so frustrating last season that Keserich skated the length of the ice after a game last season to engage in a fight with Missouri goalie Charlie Effinger for no apparent reason.

"Nothing against him," Keserich said. "I let my emotions get to me, which I shouldn't have done. All the little things were getting to me. It's how losing can build up. It was just a tough season."

Keserich has a clean mind now and is excited about what he has seen of the Thunder's new blood. There's a lot of it.

"I'm thrilled to be back here," he said. "You have to be able to put your first foot forward now and move on from where we were last season. You can't even be thinking about it. There's a lot of excitement now, a lot of new faces."

McClelland is not only a new face, but a proven winner. He led Colorado to a 42-17-5 record last season but wasn't asked back. Thunder general manager Joel Lomurno, eager to prove himself as a GM after last season's debacle, couldn't dial McClelland's number fast enough.

His success as a coach in the CHL, coupled with his 12 years as a player with the Edmonton Oilers, give McClelland instant credibility. Recognizing such, Lomurno gave his new coach great freedom to create his roster. It was obvious from the beginning that massive changes were in order.

Which is why Keserich, Woll and Hughes feel fortunate to have been asked back.

"Coach has been successful," Woll said. "He knows success and he knows how to find it."

Woll played in 62 games for the Thunder last season, so he doesn't a know a lot about success. But he's enthusiastic about finding out what it's all about.

"Even with the way things were last year, I always enjoyed coming to the rink," Woll said. "Now, it was tougher going on road trips after you'd lost a few games. But I just tried to go out every game and do as much as I could. The way things were going, there wasn't much else you could do."

The Thunder isn't just trying to get past one bad season. In the past three seasons the team is a combined 49-133-10, a difficult reality to face for a franchise that used to be in CHL contention nearly every season.

Now playing home games in the luxurious digs of Intrust Bank Arena, more wins are imperative. Many more.

"I think this team is going to work hard and score goals," Woll said. "We have a lot of solid guys, a lot of big guys. Not a lot of teams are going to want to be on the ice with us."

You're excused for being reluctant to buy into the optimism. If you sat through many Thunder games last season, you're probably still reeling from the experience.

"It can't hurt to go with new blood when you only had nine wins last season," Lomurno said.

The hope is that all the new guys — many of whom are proven CHL players — will only help. They outnumber the returning players greatly.

"I probably expected to be somewhere else," Woll said. "I might be lucky to be anywhere. But I'm happy to be back with this organization. It's a great place to play."

It certainly can be.