Lutz Blog

Bob Lutz: What’s right with Wichita sports (Part 1)

The Thunder’s Joe Blaznek (left) brings the puck in toward the goal in front of Memphis player Derek Landmesser in a 2004 game at the Kansas Coliseum.
The Thunder’s Joe Blaznek (left) brings the puck in toward the goal in front of Memphis player Derek Landmesser in a 2004 game at the Kansas Coliseum. Larry W. Smith

I’m starting a new series on my blog, and I’m going with positivity and optimism first. Which is a change for me. Later, I’ll be addressing what’s wrong with Wichita sports, but first let’s look at what’s right.

And let’s kick off this series with the Wichita Thunder, who next month will begin its 23rd season. Such longevity in the world of minor league hockey is commendable. That the Thunder has had, generally, a high degree of success over those seasons makes the franchise unique.

Arguably, the Thunder has never been in a better position. Yes, the disappointment of the 2013-14 season still resonates, especially coming off the heels of appearances in the CHL Finals the previous two seasons. But this team is in good hands, from local ownership (Steven brothers), to the front office (general manager Joel Lomurno and his associates) and especially to the coach (Kevin McClelland).

There is growing concern over the viability of the Central Hockey League, of which the Thunder was a charter member back in 1992. The CHL will play with seven teams this season. Just four years ago, the CHL consisted of 18 clubs. That’s too many; seven isn’t enough. Let’s see how the CHL addresses this issue moving forward.

In the meantime, the Thunder remains a viable and even a model franchise.

(Can you name the six original CHL franchises from 1992? Answer at the end of the blog).

The key to the Thunder’s longevity has been its fan base, which has remained strong and vocal throughout the years. There are good, knowledgeable hockey fans in Wichita and that’s no small feat. While affiliated minor-league baseball has struggled to create a strong base of support, the Thunder has always been a draw, even holding its own in lean seasons.

Playing downtown at Intrust Bank Arena has helped boost attendance. And the hiring of McClelland before the 2010-11 season, on the heels of the worst season (9-50-5) in franchise history, was the best move the franchise has made.

McClelland, who played in 588 National Hockey League games as a right-winger, mostly with the Edmonton Oilers, is as no-nonsense as they come, but he has been the Thunder’s most successful coach since Doug Shedden led the team to back-to-back CHL championships in 1994 and 1995.

McClelland’s knowledge of minor league hockey and the players who participate is unparalleled. In his first season, the Thunder improved to 34-26-6 and made the playoffs. They were 83-38-11 the next two seasons and made it to the CHL Finals before losing to Fort Wayne (2012) and Allen (2013).

Thunder games are fan-friendly and the team’s regular fans, raucous and bitingly sarcastic to opposing players and coaches, make them fun.

And the Thunder has had a lot of outstanding players over the years: Jason Duda, Travis Clayton, Cam Plante, Bob Berg, Brent Sapergia, Joe Blaznek, Ron Handy, Robert Desjardins, Paul Esdale, Andrew Martens, Paul Jackson, Rob Winegartner.

Now, as promised, here are the six original CHL franchises: Wichita Thunder, Tulsa Oilers, Oklahoma City Blazers, Memphis RiverKings, Dallas Freeze, Fort Worth Fire.