By Joshua Boyd
Wichita, Kansas, is at the heart of the 34th state.
After their victorious 2016-17 season, the Wichita Jr. Thunder have certainly captured the hearts of Kansas’ largest city. Since joining the Western States Hockey League in 2012, the Jr. Thunder have ridden a wave of improvement over its five years to the ultimate high point, winning the WSHL’s 2017 Thorne Cup championship.
“It’s never easy to win a championship,” said fifth-year Jr. Thunder player Alex Smith, a Wichita native. “Even though we dominated through the playoffs, it was very hard. We had to fight every game.
“It meant a lot to bring something home important to our hometown,” Smith added. “We put Wichita on the hockey map.”
“The biggest thing I’ve had going for me is a good group of returning players,” said Jr. Thunder head coach Rob Weingartner. “That’s why I had such a good team.”
Hockey players from around the world would be mistaken if they didn’t consider Wichita as a place to develop. Weingartner admits it can be a tough sell for elite players to come to the central Great Plains, far away from hockey hubs/NHL markets like St. Louis (440 miles away), Minneapolis (650 miles) and Chicago (700).
But, once the players come to the Jr. Thunder, they are often so impressed with the professionalism and commitment to each player, and they decide to stay a while. His 2016-17 Thorne Cup championship team included 15 returning players.
The Jr. Thunder also develop players for the next level, with two from the Thorne Cup team moving on to the NCAA Division 3 ranks, five more moving on to American
College Hockey Association teams and one committed to a Canadian university team.
“It was great, I loved playing there. It’s a great town,” said Tyler Crites, this past season’s assistant captain and a two-year Jr. Thunder player. Crites will move on to Robert Morris Illinois, which has an ACHA team. “We get a lot of free ice, and we have really good coaches in Rob, Kevin St. Pierre and Sean O’Reilly.”
“When I get kids in from Chicago, Ohio, Colorado, the kids see our facility [the Wichita Ice Center], and they say ‘this is nice!’” said Weingartner. “We have two sheets of ice, with an Olympic-size sheet that we play our games on. If you’re a skill player, it’s a great setup – we improved our power play to 30 percent last year on the big ice.”
The Wichita Ice Center, built in 1997, also includes a NHL-size sheet of ice, in addition to the Olympic sheet, which is surrounded by 800 stadium-style seats for Jr. Thunder games.
Along with a bar/restaurant and pro shop, there is also one of the five Wichita branches of Genesis Health Club right at the Ice Center. Not only do Jr. Thunder players get almost unlimited ice time, they also have dry-land training right on site.
Rodney Stevens, the majority owner of the Jr. Thunder, is also the owner of the Genesis Health Clubs, which have locations throughout the Midwest.
Team captain Jack McClelland kept coming back to the Thunder and helped the Jr. Thunder win the Thorne Cup in his fourth year. Jack is the son of longtime NHL player and four-time Stanley Cup champion Kevin McClelland.
Kevin moved his family to Wichita in 2010, when he began coaching the pro Wichita Thunder, where he remained until 2016.
“I always had opportunities to go elsewhere, but Coach [Weingartner] always trusted me, and I always trusted Coach. I always got the playing time I was looking for,” said McClelland. “The organization treated me great. It’s a great set-up with the two rinks, the gym upstairs. My billet family this year treated me great. It’s a great city. It’s home to me.”
Smith, who is second all-time in WSHL games played (224), said he always liked how the coaching staff worked with the players and didn’t play mind games.
“I liked that the coaches were pretty honest, and I really liked the facility. The Wichita Ice Center is one of the nicest buildings ever,” Smith added. “The bigger ice helped us to use speed to our advantage. Goalies have to change their angles, which they tell us is the hardest part of playing on the Olympic ice. I got a lot of ice time, and it helped me every year to get bigger and stronger.”
The Wichita Thunder pro team came to town in 1992, and played for its first 22 years in the old Central Hockey League. The pro team joined the ECHL in 2014-15.
Former Thunder player Brian Wells, an old Wichita teammate of Weingartner’s, started the Junior Thunder five years ago. A year after the start, Wells turned the management reins over to Joel Lomurno, who added the duties of general manager of the junior team to his GM duties for the pro team.
“He’s been with the pro Thunder for 25 years now, every year since their first year. He leaves a lot of the details to me, but he’s obviously the final say,” said Weingartner.
One of the biggest challenges for the Jr. Thunder is the lack of an elite youth program. That leaves a big gap between local area high school hockey and the Jr. Thunder, which leads to a wide net that Weingartner has to cast.
Like many of the WSHL teams, the Junior Thunder take full advantage of the lenient import rules of the league, and keep the door open to Europeans and Canadians. For the Thorne Cup team, the Jr. Thunder had seven Europeans and two Canadians, with the remainder coming from such farflung U.S. locations as Massachusetts, Texas, California, Missouri, Arizona and Wisconsin, among other places.
“I go to probably seven, eight camps every summer. I go everywhere from Nashville to to Minnesota to Chicago to Las Vegas,” said Weingartner. “I do the best I can to land the players.”
“I didn’t know much [about the Jr. Thunder]. I did some research. Looking at the league website, I saw they had some really good goalies and forwards, but they needed some help on the back end,” said Crites, of Aslip, Ill. “I jumped on the opportunity to go play there and get a lot of ice time. I knew they had some good facilities, and you can go to drop-ins, stick-and-puck time, the gym’s right there. That was how I decided.”
The international roll call includes home countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, France and Finland.
They come to the Thunder once they know there are team practices every day. On top of systems play, there are also skills days and days focused just on skating.
“Most practices are high-tempo, always focusing on skating and footwork,” said Weingartner. “Diagrams are up on boards for review before practice.”
There is video review just as one would find in any NCAA or NHL practice session.
“We review goals and situations before practices and games,” said Weingartner.
“On the ice, we’ve developed a lot of different situational play,” added McClelland. “We’ve excelled in the power play and penalty kill – our strategies helped those go through the roof. Playing in the WSHL got me a lot of minutes, so my skating ability improved a lot.”
Along with straight-up strength and conditioning programs at Genesis, there are also spin classes. Essentially everything a player needs can be found within the Wichita Ice Center.
The Jr. Thunder also enjoy great team unity, going to every possible home game for the pro Thunder.
“Every player gets a ticket to their home games when we are in town,” said Weingartner.
“Growing up and going to the Wichita Thunder games in the old CHL, hockey became really exciting,” Smith said. “I started playing youth hockey when I was 8. When I was 16, I was trying out for other teams up in Chicago, but I ended up not making them, and I came back home to Wichita. I found out this team was starting out and I tried out for them.”
Building a champion
A key ingredient that led the Thunder to the Thorne Cup this year was the continued development of returning players.
“Almost every player that returns performs better in their next season,” said Weingartner.
Slovakian import Peter Cicmanec went from 71 points in 2014-15 to 99 points last season to 134 points in 2016-17.
Jack McClelland started out with 25 points, improved to 43, then to 70 and 87 in this 2016-17 season.
“We started out with four wins in my first year [2013-14], and everyone started to buy into the coaches’ process,” said McClelland. “We started getting a bunch of guys who were here for three years, and we finally won it all.
“We had a bit of everything,” McClelland added. “We had so much skill on our first line, all of whom were among the top scorers in the league. Our second and third lines were also able to score, and our fourth line played good minutes so that our top line could provide the goals. We had a lot of elite players, but we all connected off the ice. We hung out every day.”
After his three years, Cicmanec surfaced as the league’s top player, leading the WSHL in goals (52), assists (82) and points (134). His 304 career points put Cicmanec at second place alltime in WSHL.
Zach Balodis, a three-year player for the Thunder, finished his three-year career fifth all-time in WSHL points (121), goals (27) and assists (94). He turned his success into a future with Lebanon Valley College.
Goalie Adam Conkling committed to Trine University, after putting together 26 strong games in net for the Thunder this year.
As aforementioned, Crites is looking at Robert Morris Illinois, while McClelland has committed to Acadia University (Canadian Interuniversity Sport), and Smith is expecting to play for Missouri State’s ACHA team next year.
Other players have gotten opportunities with North American Hockey League teams. Balodis got called up for 27 games with the NAHL’s Springfield Jr. Blues in 2015-16. Simon Sefcik (Topeka Roadrunners) and Martin Trudman (Austin Bruins) both signed with different NAHL teams for the 2017-18 season.
The Wichita Jr. Thunder stand like a beacon above the Great Plains, welcoming their players to take the chance and play high-flying, offensive hockey in the Western States Hockey League. And from there, beyond to just about anywhere.