The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Devan Dubnyk understands there are high expectations for him and the Stockton Thunder.
But Dubnyk and his teammates welcome those expectations because they have lofty goals of their own.
Stockton’s minor league hockey visits the Bakersfield Condors Friday at Rabobank Arena to begin the second season in team history. Coach Chris Cichocki and the players have declared that the Thunder no longer will be known as a team with many fans but few victories.
“We’ll win,” Cichocki said. “I know we’ll be better, and so does everyone on this team.”
The Thunder’s optimism is tied to the team’s perfect preseason, a series of promising free-agent signings and the help the team got from its NHL affiliate, the Edmonton Oilers, who sent Dubnyk and forwards Liam Reddox, Tyler Spurgeon and Troy Bodie to Stockton.
“We should win,” Cichocki said. “We expect to win.”
Dubnyk, 20, has the highest profile of anybody on the team.
The 6-foot-5, 209-pounder was the Oilers’ first-round pick in 2004 and shut out the Phoenix Coyotes in an exhibition game in September. Edmonton officials have said they believe he will be in the NHL within a few years.
He knows there’s pressure to perform, and he embraces it.
“Everyone in here is excited and expects to win,” Dubnyk said. “It’s expected that we will be good, and that’s good. Expectations bring pressure, and athletes need pressure to succeed. I’ve always felt that way, and I think a lot of people in the locker room think the same way.”
Thunder forward Mike Lalonde, the team’s lone remaining ECHL All-Star from last year, said this team has a much different feel from the squad that went 18-40-14 while leading the league in attendance with an average of 6,343 fans per game at Stockton Arena. The arena wasn’t ready when the Thunder’s inaugural season began and it played the first 15 games on the road.
“It’s just a nice mix of players, and you can feel that everyone is optimistic that this is a good hockey team,” Lalonde said. “It’s much different than last year, when you came in to a new team and new city not knowing what to expect. Now we have a few guys back who can help and you know there’s a strong fan base that’s going to support us. We should be better.”
Bakersfield coach Marty Raymond said he knows the Condors won’t be facing the same Thunder.
“Stockton has Dubnyk in the goal and some other help from Edmonton, and a lot of fine young players they’ve picked up. We know how tough they look,” Raymond said. “But I also know they aren’t under the radar. I think everyone in the league has seen what they are doing over there.”
The Oilers sent over four talented prospects, but Cichocki also had to convince free agents to come to Stockton.
He said it was an easy sell this time.
“I told many of the players when I signed them that this was the best situation in the league,” Cichocki said. “The fans are great, the arena is beautiful and we’re trying to build something here. I can just imagine how the people around here will react if we put a winning team on the ice after the way they treated us last year. This could be a special situation.”
Cichocki also signed two players who played last year for the ECHL’s Wheeling (Pa.) Nailers – forwards Brendon Hodge and Tim Verbeek – who will bring speed and scoring ability, and held on to Lalonde, forwards Nathan Martz and Steve Slonina and defenseman Jeff Lang.
“As a coach, you have to appreciate what Chris has done in Stockton,” Fresno Falcons coach Matt Thomas said. “He’s got things going in the right direction.”
But Cichocki realizes having a good roster and winning preseason games won’t mean much when the puck drops tonight.
“We have to do it on the ice, and all you can do is try to put together a team capable of winning,” Cichocki said. “I think we are very capable of doing that. Now, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make it happen, including me. “