Some have said the Wichita Jr. Thunder’s run to the Thorne Cup championship was more surprising than it was expected.
By Brian Lester
Head coach Rob Weingartner doesn’t agree. He talked about that after his team held off two-time champion Idaho 4-3 in an intense and thrilling final of the Thorne Cup playoffs.
“A lot of people say it’s a Cinderella story. I disagree,” Weingartner said. “I’ve said all along, seeing what we had and with so many returning players and seeing their compete level, I felt we had a good chance to win every night.”
Wichita advanced to the final with a 4-2 come-from-behind win over the host Ogden Mustangs. Jack McClelland paved the way with a hat trick to propel the Thunder, the third seed out of the Mid-Western Division, to the championship game. Erik Spath made 55 saves in the victory.
Peter Cicmanec followed that performance up with a hat trick of his own in the championship game. Spath made 14 of his 35 saves in the final period to help Wichita hold on for the win and make the dream of a championship a reality.
“It was very emotional for me,” Weingartner said. “A lot of hard work went into the season and it’s a great feeling any time you win a championship. It doesn’t matter what level you are at. It’s always exciting. Those games in the tournament were amazing, some of the best hockey I’ve seen in our league for sure.”
Weingartner admits that when his team fell behind against Idaho he was a little concerned.
The win marked the second time in the postseason that the Jr. Thunder knocked off the Steelheads. It won the first meeting 2-1. Wichita finished its postseason run without a loss.
“With Idaho taking that first period lead, you worried a little because they’ve been there and done that before in the playoffs,” Weingartner said. “Our guys battled through it, had a solid second period and good things happened after that.”
Experienced helped play a role in Wichita’s success throughout the tournament. The Jr. Thunder returned 15 players from last season and several of the players have been with the team for multiple seasons.
“I had five or six guys who have been here for three years and two players who have been with me for five years,” Weingartner said. “They understand the language and the systems and they applied their skill to that. The guys worked hard and we were confident. Having that experience made all the difference in the world.”
Wichita won its final 16 games of the year, a streak that began late in the regular season, and several players rose to the occasion.
Cicmanec finished the year with a team-best 63 goals and also dished out 89 assists while Oskar Gullstrom came through with 59 goals and 94 assists to rank second on the team in points.
Jack McClelland had a big year as well, scoring 38 goals and dishing out 63 assists.
Spath played in 38 games for the Jr. Thunder and allowed 80 goals while making 953 saves. He won 21 games this season.
“Our guys played for each other,” Weingartner said. “We had some huge scorers on our team, but we also had players get out there and block shots and play hard no matter what the situation was. We played as a team.”
Bolstering the defense in the off-season also helped set the stage for the Jr. Thunder’s success. Players like Simon Sefcik, Tyler Crites, Robert Igel and Alex Smith played key roles.
“We knew we had good skill at the forward position and a great goalie,” Weingartner added. “We knew we just had to make a few additions to our defense and we would be in good shape. It paid off.”
And now that Wichita has a title, the profile of the franchise has been raised. The team has risen steadily over the last five years and will aim to remain a contender going forward.
“We have a great setup here, with an Olympic-size rink with 800 stadium seats on one side and the gym upstairs,” Weingartner said. “We have what it takes to win here. It’s hard to convince parents to send their kids to Kansas to further their careers but we hope this opens some eyes for kids, that they see this is a great place to play.”