By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Thunder president Dan Chapman called it the most unpredictable season in team history.
And its most successful.
The team changed coaches, added new players and advanced farther than ever in the playoffs with a goalie that had almost no previous professional experience.
“It was easily the craziest season I have been a part of,” coach Matt Thomas said. “And I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
Stockton’s “crazy” season ended May 6 in a 5-1 loss to the Las Vegas Wranglers in the seventh and deciding game of the ECHL Pacific Division finals. The Thunder (32-33-7) didn’t have its best regular season – that came in 2007 (38-24-10) – but it advanced out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in its four-year history.
“We achieved one of the important goals that we set by advancing in the playoffs,” Chapman said. “It was definitely progress.”
Chapman and Thomas have begun negotiating a new contract. Thomas, 33, succeeded Chris Cichocki, the franchise’s first coach, on Dec. 29. Chapman also is talking with the Edmonton Oilers about remaining Stockton’s NHL parent franchise. He said he’s confident both deals will get done.
Cichocki was fired after three-plus seasons with Stockton. The team was 10-17-4 when the change occurred. Thomas had lost his job on Dec. 22 when the Fresno Falcons ceased operations. The Thunder went 22-16-3 under Thomas and made the playoffs for the third year in a row.
“I can’t think of a better place in the ECHL,” said Thomas, who expressed he would be open to offers from higher levels.
Said Chapman: “We definitely want him back, but he is a young coach that wants to go to higher levels, and we support him in that aspiration. Just like the players we have here aspire to move up, and we support them.”
If the Oilers remain affiliated with the Thunder, there’s no telling whom they might keep in Stockton. Among those who starred for the Thunder this season were goaltender Andrew Perugini, defenseman Cleve Kinley and forward Ryan Huddy, who set single-season franchise records in goals (35) and total points (73).
Forward Cory Urquhart plans to play in Germany. Defenseman Matt O’Dette, the 33-year-old team captain, likely will retire. Forward Mike Lalonde and goalie Parker Van Buskirk, who unexpectedly led the playoff run, could be in Stockton or somewhere else.
Defenseman Mark Adamek, the franchise’s leader in games played with 186, said it’s always hard to predict what will happen in the offseason.
“I do know I like it here, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of what they are doing here,” said Adamek, who has been with Stockton for three seasons. “As for this season, well, it was hard to describe.”
“It was a huge change for everybody,” Gongalsky said. “It took some time to get to know each other, but we immediately got along and became one team.”
Huddy said the biggest adjustment had nothing to do with the Fresno players.
“The biggest thing was getting to know Matt and what he expected,” Huddy said. “That’s normal when you have a coaching change. But things came together quickly.”
The Thunder surged right after Thomas was hired, but had its ups and downs. It was the fourth seed in the Pacific Division and met up with the division champs, the Ontario Reign, in the first round.
Perugini was injured in the first game, a 4-3 Ontario victory. The Thunder signed Van Buskirk, a junior goalie who had played just two pro games in his career, as the emergency backup to Brian Pitton. But when the Thunder fell behind 2-1 in the series, Van Buskirk went in and led the Thunder back.
“It’s still hard to describe the whole situation. It was a crazy ride,” Van Buskirk said. “I was called upon to play and just went out and did my best.”
Van Buskirk wasn’t the only reason the Thunder beat the Reign and pushed the Wranglers to the limit, but he sure helped.
“He was asked to come into a tough situation, and he was calm and steady and delivered,” Lalonde said.
Though the Thunder had its best playoff showing, coming one game shy of the conference finals was tough for the players, coaches and team president to accept.
Chapman said the Thunder now has something to shoot for in the future.
“This really whets the appetite,” Chapman said. “We took the next step and want to keep going.”