Blue Collar Approach Makes Jake Theut Fan Favorite for Wichita Thunder
The landscape of America has changed quite a bit over the last 70 years. Cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland used to be the shining symbols of what the United States was all about – blue collar workers, putting in long hours each and every day to care for their families, while helping to create a better life for their loved ones and for America as a whole.
With many companies moving overseas, many of these cities have long patches of area that are virtual ghost towns, with empty warehouses, vast regions of struggling families, and a sense of despair.
That is not the case in Wichita. The “Air Capital of the World” has not only become the symbol of what it means to be “blue collar,” but it is becoming a popular place for those looking to relocate. The city has become a place that symbolizes what is great about America and prides itself on its tradition as a hard-working city that has a small town feel in a region of well over 400,000 people.
This is a city that admires athletes who grind it out and battle with every pitch, throw, run, save, or shot. This is a town that boasts some of the greatest NFL stars in history, including Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders. Yet, it is also a city of athletes who worked harder than anyone else to reach the highest peak of their sport, men like NBA guard Antoine Carr and Detroit Tigers left-hander Nate Robertson. These are the heroes that Wichita lauds, so it is no surprise that Wichita Thunder goaltender Jake Theut has been so warmly embraced in his first season with the team.
The Best Laid Plans…Blah, Blah, Blah
When the 2021-22 ECHL season got underway, the Wichita Thunder were expected to be battling for one of the top spots in the Mountain Division. After all, the team was coming off their best season since joining the ECHL and had a number of things going for them, including the return of Head Coach Bruce Ramsay, who was named as the John Brophy Coach of the Year last season.
Star netminder Evan Buitenhuis was returning, as were regulars Stephen Johnson, Cam Clarke, Jay Dickman, Alex Peters, Sean Allen, Peter Crinella, Garrett Schmitz, Brayden Watts, and Dean Stewart. Billy Exell was also returning to the team after sitting out last season, giving many hopes the Thunder would reach the Kelly Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history.
This was the year of high hopes, but hopes have been dashed as the year has progressed. Johnson was hurt early in the season and missed nearly three months. Stewart, Crinella, Dickman, Buitenhuis, and Watts have all spent time in the AHL. It has led to the Thunder facing the longest slump in franchise history.
It has also led to the emergence of several young stars. Carter Johnson has established himself as one of the best rookie forwards in the ECHL and Logan Fredericks is on the cusp of becoming a dynamic offensive force. It has also led to the emergence of goaltender Jake Theut, who is giving this team a chance to win each and every night.
Earning His Way to Wichita
To be honest, Jake Theut had established himself more academically than through his college hockey credentials. Theut was a star in high school, even being named as Mr. Goalie in Michigan his senior season, moving on to the junior level after graduating. He played three seasons in juniors, joining the New Hampshire Monarchs in 2013-14, where he started 27 games and posted a 2.10 GAA. Theut was spectacular, going 24-3-0 with a .935 save percentage.
Two years later, he was the backup at Northeastern University where he appeared in five games over the next two seasons. Jake was given limited opportunity to thrive, but took the reins in 2018-19 while at the University of Alabama-Huntsville where he was working on his master’s degree. The netminder wanted to continue his academic and athletic careers, and went 2-10 and 12 starts at Huntsville, posting a 0.894 program for a program known more for its football than its hockey program.
It was quite the challenge balancing the research and coursework needed to complete his degree while also preparing weekly for his next opponent on the ice. Jake admits that there were many nights after games where teammates were sleeping on the drive back home, yet he was in the back of the bus with books and scouting charts preparing for both endeavors.
After completing his Master’s Degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology, Jake was ready for the next challenge in his life. He always envisioned using his degree to help maximize workplace efficiency through the behavioral techniques he had learned, but he was not done on the ice. Theut wanted to continue his playing career, so he signed with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs (SPHL). The goaltender appeared in 11 games that season, going 3-5-1 with a 2.72 GAA and a .915 save percentage.
That earned him a shot at the next level, as he joined the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (ECHL) in 2019-20, playing three games in Greenville before joining the Norfolk Admirals. In 12 total games, Theut went 2-6-3, posting a .891 save percentage.
The next season seemed like a step back, as he returned to the SPHL, joining the Macon Mayhem. This was not a step down for Jake, however. This was an opportunity to shine, and that is what the goaltender did. Jake starred for Macon that season, going 16-1-4 with a 1.74 GAA and a .933 save percentage. His .810 winning percentage set a league record and he was second in several categories, including goals-against average, save percentage, shutouts (3), and minutes played (1307).
It was clear that Jake had the skill set, mental toughness, and tenacity to be a professional goaltender, and he returned to Norfolk in 2021-22. However, with two goaltenders sent down by the parent club, Jake found himself without much of an opportunity to play. That led Coach Ramsay to acquire the goaltender, helping Theut to advance to the next opportunity in his career.
He’s a Wichita Linemate
Arriving in Wichita was the perfect opportunity for Jake Theut. Not only would this be a chance for him to stick with the team that was looking for a solid backup for Buitenhuis, but Jake was not new to the Wichita area. Cousin Matt DeBlouw had played for the Thunder until retiring and had given rave reviews about what the city had to offer.
However, getting on the ice was not going to be an easy task. Buitenhuis had started the season by playing in 17 straight games, an ECHL record, and he had no intention on diminishing his own role or playing time with the team. Yet, Coach Ramsay knew he needed to give his starter a break, and Theut proved to be the perfect backup.
Theut saw his first action with the team on November 28, earning a victory in a 3-2 shootout win over the Rapid City Rush. From there, his appearances were limited. He made a December 9 start against Allen before taking to the ice on December 18 against Utah.
It seemed like the opportunity to continue to further his progress professionally was going to be stymied, but the academic minded Theut understood that this was just a new challenge. This was his opportunity to learn and mature while also supporting his fellow netminder and his team.
“You still have to prep every day like you’re prepping for your next start. It doesn’t matter when it is. I just try to be prepared going into each week. Sometimes a goalie gets hot or struggles, and I just have to be prepared to be ready. I have to treat every day like a game and, if I can do that, when the time comes, I’ll be ready to rock.”
That opportunity arose when Buitenhuis moved up to the AHL club in Bakersfield. Suddenly, it was Theut who was the new No. 1 starter, and he seized upon the opportunity, closing out 2021 with three straight appearances.
Days later, the Edmonton Oilers sent goaltender Olivier Rodrigue to Wichita, and he would be between the pipes for back-to-back starts against Kansas City. Theut was the backup once again, but he made it his mission to ensure his teammates knew he was ready to go whenever his name was called.
“I keep my routine the same. I just to the same thing every day. I’m just trying to prove to myself and to my teammates that I can take that next step and just be ready when they need me. I want them to have confidence that I will be ready.”
Once again, when Rodrigue moved back to Bakersfield, Theut was back as the No. 1 starter. He was between the pipes in three of the next four games, including a 2-1 victory over Kansas City on January 11. With each start, the goaltender got more comfortable with his team and the numbers revealed that. Jake had been hovering around the .870 save percentage mark, but quickly moved up to .906 while lowering his goals-against average to 3.63. The team was struggling, but it was clear that they had much more confidence and assurance that when they needed a big save, Jake would come through. That was an attitude not lost on the goaltender.
“Each game I’m feeling more and more confident. That confidence spreads in the locker room. The guys are really excited to go out and win every game in the locker room. Every day you got to go out and produce and I think when you enter a new team you got to prove yourself. I am just trying to do that the best I can day in and day out.”
Stopping pucks became more than just a task for Jake Theut. It was a calling, a mission of sorts. He understands that his only goal each night is to stop every puck that comes near his net. However, Jake does not limit that task just to game night. To him, no one scores in his goal.
“Being around the guys, the grind of it, the challenge. I really love the challenge of not letting in any pucks. I talked to (Brendan) van Reimsdyk all the time and I tell him that I call a no freebies. I don’t let anyone just score for the thrill of it. Even when the coach tries the score between drills I love the challenge of keeping the puck out.”
Remember What Got You Here
That commitment to his craft has helped Jake Theut to become a key figure for a Wichita Thunder team looking to get on a run to make the playoffs. However, it has done much more. It has helped to establish him as one of the more relatable members of the team. In a community built on a blue-collar mentality, Jake has become a true symbol of that practice on the ice.
“Preparation is kind of what hockey is all about. You can’t lose a game you already lost, so you just have to prepare and to be the most prepared you can be heading into the next game. You just need to take care of the next game, the next shift, the next shot kind of mentality.”
Jake has become such a relatable figure because of that work ethic. He put in the hard work to earn a master’s degree in an area where one day he will likely be helping businesses such as Spirit Airlines and Boeing to become more efficient. He has also remembered all the hard work and dedication he has put in and is not taking for granted the opportunities presented to him.
“There has been a lot of hardship that you go through just to get to here. Sometimes you just got to sit back and think how fortunate you are to be playing the game you love with guys that are great to be around. Sometimes things may not go your way for a night or two, but you just got to keep playing. Sometimes having that little humbleness grounds you and makes you appreciate that we are fortunate to do what we do for living.”
His own opportunity for success and helping his team to thrive is not the only reason Jake Theut strives to excel. He understands that in a time when hard work and dedication are viewed negatively in high schools and college campuses, he has a golden opportunity to inspire the next generation. Inspire them to push themselves to reach their own goals and maybe even to want to be part of the greatest game on ice.
“I know it’s tough with the restrictions but, if I can give a kid a puck at the warm-up or squirt a water bottle on the glass, that makes a difference. Just thinking about the impact growing up, kids look up to us and I want to be a positive image that kids want to be and can remember some good things. That can be important because my kids are going to be looking at them one day and getting that puck or having that little interaction.”
A strong commitment to his craft. A dedication to being prepared. A love and devotion to his team. A desire to serve and be a role model for his community. Jake Theut may never have the opportunity to achieve his ultimate goal of reaching the NHL. However, he has already become the perfect symbol of what Wichita is all about.
Images Courtesy of Wichita Thunder and Super Ed Bailey
By Robert Pannier