The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Dean Stork looked around at his teammates and declared that this is a Chris Cichocki team.
According to Stork and others who know the Stockton Thunder coach, that’s good news.
The Thunder plays its inaugural game Saturday at 7 p.m. against the Fresno Falcons at Save Mart Center in Fresno. Team officials expect more than 100 local fans to make the 130-mile trip to see their new ECHL team, which left training camp filled with optimism and determination.
A part of their good feelings are based on their faith in Cichocki, whose name is pronounced Cha-hockey. It’s easy to trust a guy when he’s been in the game for 20 years, has proven he knows how to win and has a last name that rhymes with the sport he loves.
“Chris brings a lot of passion for the game to the team, and he wants players who feel the same way,” said Stork, who also played for Cichocki in Cincinnati and Arkansas in the ECHL. “He knows the game, but what always comes through is the passion.”
Cichocki says he has game in his name and in his blood, and it’s not just a witty one-liner. He is a disciple of basic, hard-hitting hockey. It’s a philosophy he has believed in since he was an 8-year-old playing on the streets of Warren, Mich., and it led him to the NHL.
“I believe in keeping things simple,” Cichocki said. “I know as a player you didn’t want to be thinking too much, and I want these guys to go out and play. What we do, we’ll do well.”
After two weeks of training camp, the players believe him and aren’t afraid to predict that Stockton’s first team will be successful.
“This will be a very good team, I can already sense it,” goalie Jake Moreland said. “I know we just got together, but I think we’re definitely good enough to go deep into the playoffs. I have no doubt about it.”
The Thunder is basically an expansion team. The Stockton Pro Hockey Group bought the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies in January, but what’s left of the Bullies will be on the other bench Saturday.
Fresno hired former Bullies coach Matt Thomas, who brought eight of his players with him. Moreland and reserve goalie Jeff Weber are the only Atlantic City players who came to Stockton.
Cichocki said a team usually retains five or 10 players from the previous season, but it’s not the first time he’s built a team from scratch. When he became coach of the woeful Arkansas RiverBlades in 2000, Cichocki kept two of the 20 players and made the playoffs.
One of the players he brought in was Stork, who is a defenseman and an unofficial assistant coach with the Thunder.
“I’ve told the guys how fast you can turn it around in this league,” Stork said. “Chris knows how to do it, he’s been in the game a long time.”
Cichocki, 42, went to Michigan Tech University and started his professional career in 1985. He played for 15 seasons, mostly in the minor leagues, with stints in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils.
In 1987 he was with New Jersey and Pat Conacher, who currently is the head coach of the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League. The Rampage is the Phoenix Coyotes’ AHL affiliate.
Conacher was one of the people who urged the Coyotes to sign a deal with the Thunder.
He said the primary reason was his old friend. He remembers meeting Cichocki in 1987, when he was following his dream and sporting a long, mullet-like hairstyle, which Cichocki admits was a mistake.
“The first thing that struck me about Chris is that terrible hairstyle, but then I got to know him and how he felt about the game,” Conacher said. “I know that if we send players to Stockton, they will be in great hands. Chris has a vision of what he wants.”
In Stockton, the first thing Cichocki wanted to do was secure the Bullies’ most important player. Moreland was the first player signed by the Thunder in July.
“Jake won several games for the Bullies last year,” Cichocki said. “I think he’s the best goalie in the league.”
Through free agency and trades, Cichocki put together a balanced roster that he thinks can score, defend or fight when necessary. In the last few days of camp, he picked up veteran defensemen Geno Parrish and tough forward Derek Campbell, who had 228 penalty minutes in 58 games last season with the Elmira Jackals of the United Hockey League.
“This team doesn’t have one big enforcer, but we have about seven guys who will mix it up, and that’s a good number,” Cichocki said. “Good, hard checking is part of the game, and sometimes so is fighting. I want a team that is prepared for any situation.”
The Thunder has vowed to make good on its coach’s promise. The players plan to use the 13-game road trip at the beginning of the season to bond with each other and meld into a good team before debuting in Stockton in early December.
Stork has no doubt that the Thunder can accomplish those goals, and many more. He’s played for Chris Cichocki, and he’s seen it happen before.
“I know how fast we can become a very good team,” Stork said. “Chris has a plan, and it will work.”