By Scott Linesburgh
The Stockton Record
STOCKTON, Calif. – Stockton Thunder coach Chris Cichocki wants people to talk about his team in the coming years.
“My vision is that at the beginning of every season, we are mentioned among the teams who have a chance to win the championship,” Cichocki said. “I want us to be one of those teams they talk about.”
Cichocki and team president Dan Chapman believe the 2006-07 season helped position the Thunder to become one of those teams.
The Thunder once again drew more fans than any franchise in the ECHL, and this time backed it up with a talented team that secured the first postseason berth in the team’s two seasons. The Thunder endured a roller-coaster campaign that began at a torrid pace and fought off a long drought in the middle to finish strong.
In the end, Stockton finished 38-22-10 and led the National Conference with a one-season improvement of 36 points.
It took a little help from its NHL affiliate, the Edmonton Oilers, and a few moves by Cichocki in the final month of the regular season to give the team a spark by adding playmakers, such as Colin Pepperall and Mathieu Melanson.
The Thunder was eliminated in the first round of the playoff by the Idaho Steelheads, but Chapman said the team achieved its goals.
“We would have liked to go farther in the playoffs, but this was a successful season,” Chapman said. “Before the season, we said we wanted to improve our performance in the stands and on the ice, and to make the playoffs. We did that, and now we want to keep improving.”
The Thunder hopes a stable and consistent situation off the ice will help it win games. Just before the playoffs, Chapman endorsed Cichocki’s vision for the future by giving the all-star coach a new three-year contract. And Cichocki is negotiating with the Oilers to renew their agreement.
Both sides said the deal will get done.
“I think both sides are satisfied, and Chris and I just have to sit down to come up with an agreement,” said Oilers assistant general manager Scott Howson, who supervises Edmonton’s minor-league players. “We fully intend to continue our relationship with Stockton.”
The Oilers provided several players throughout the season, including goaltender Devan Dubnyk, the team’s No. 1 draft pick; forwards Troy Bodie, Tim Sestitio, Liam Reddox, Stephane Goulet; and defenseman Bryan Young, who became the first Thunder player to play in the NHL when he joined the Oilers late in the season.
Howson said Edmonton got everything it expected from of the Thunder.
“We had researched the situation and knew this would be a good place for our young players, and that’s the way it turned out,” Howson said. “The crowds are great and it’s a nice facility. The team had its ups and downs, but that’s the way it is in pro hockey.”
The Thunder was familiar with ups and downs during an eventful season, but the attendance stayed steady. Stockton led the league with an average of 6,780 fans per game, an increase of 437 from the year before.
And there was plenty to cheer about. Stockton was one of the best teams in the ECHL through the first two months of the season and lost one of its first 18 games. The Thunder became a subject of conversation throughout the league, and any memory of its dismal inaugural season quickly faded.
“Winning changes a lot of perceptions,” said Thunder forward Nathan Martz, one of two players, along with Mike Lalonde, to complete both seasons with the Thunder. “We did get off to a great start, and that got a lot of people excited. But we couldn’t keep it going forever.”
The Thunder slumped in January and didn’t pull out of it until the final month of the regular season. Players who had been hot cooled off, and injuries and promotions stifled a once-strong offense.
Dubnyk was pulled off the team twice, once to play an international tournament in Switzerland and once to go to the American Hockey League. Bodie and Spurgeon also went to the AHL, and Spurgeon did not return. And key players, including Hodge and Lalonde, suffered long-term injuries.
Stockton suffered through a five-game losing streak in mid-February, and Cichocki declared he would make changes. He said it’s always a bit of a risk to change a team’s chemistry late in the year.
“But we had to do something,” Cichocki said. “We were stale and weren’t getting it done offensively. I had to change things up.”
At the trading deadline on March 7, Cichocki swung a three-team deal that sent second-year players Steve Slonina and Jeff Lang to Columbia, and acquired hard-hitting defenseman Brian Lee from Gwinnett.
Around the same time he made two crucial free-agent signings, bringing in Melanson and Pepperall, a firefighter in training. The Oilers also helped by shipping speedy Brock Radunske to Stockton.
“They came in and breathed new life into the team,” Lalonde said. “We needed something to get going.”
The Thunder put together an 11-game winning streak, the second longest of the season in the ECHL, in the closing weeks. The playoff run ended much sooner than the team wanted. But although the ice at Stockton Arena has been covered up, team officials remain busy, planning for the 2007-08 season, which includes hosting the ECHL All-Star Game in January.
Cichocki has until July 1 to exclusively negotiate with players who finished the season on the Stockton roster and at that time will release a list of eight protected players who have not signed. The franchise already is checking out the free-agent market, and assuming all goes well with the negotiations, Howson said the Thunder can expect between two and five players from the Oilers.
The coach of the Thunder believes the foundation of success is in place.
“Now we get ready for the next step,” Cichocki said. “You have to keep building.”