Charlie Combs Stepping Out of the Shadow of His Brother with Wichita Thunder
Every younger brother or sister has had to face this reality at some point in their lives. As you grow up and start going to school, you have the same teachers or instructors that your older sibling had, and you are always compared to that brother or sister. Your reputation has already been established before you walk through the classroom door.
If your sibling was a high achiever, then high expectations are placed upon you right away. If they were a troublemaker or less studious, then the expectations for your own success are often dwarfed at best.
It can be a challenge to step out of the shadow of your brother or sister, but the challenge becomes even more daunting when you are following the same career path as your sibling. This is the challenge that Wichita Thunder forward Charlie Combs has had to endure, as he has joined the team for the 2020-21 season a year after brother Jack played with the team. However, instead of seeing this as a challenge, Charlie is embracing the path his brother has blazed, and is now creating his own legacy.
A Long Shadow Indeed
Jack Combs is a daunting figure. At 6’0”, 201 pounds, the older brother has been a superior scorer wherever he has gone. That included reaching the AHL level five times, most recently in 2015-16 when he was with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Last season, Jack joined Wichita briefly, scoring five goals and adding 10 assists in just 15 games, but moved on to Europe this season where he is starring in SC Csíkszereda, scoring a combined 27 goals and adding 27 assists in 38 games for Romania and Erste Liga. The older Combs has clearly established a reputation for greatness.
Charlie Combs does not have the same stature of his brother, coming in at 5’6”, 194 pounds. He is in his first professional season after a successful run at both the junior level and in college.
That started in 2011-12 when the younger Combs joined the St. Louis AAA Blues 16U team, scoring 26 goals in 40 games. The following season he moved up to the 18U club, where he starred for two seasons, scoring 50 total goals and adding 34 assists in 74 games.
That caught the attention of the Amarillo Bulls (NAHL). In 2014-15, Charlie played in 56 games for the team, scoring 21 goals and adding 14 assists. The following season he moved on to the USHL where he began the year with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, playing 11 games there and six additional ones with the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
His stay in the USHL was brief, as he would move on to the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), joining the Wenatchee Wild. The younger Combs appeared in 28 games with the Wild, scoring 15 goals and adding 13 assists, helping the team to make the playoffs where he scored seven goals and added nine total points in 10 games.
The next year he returned to Wenatchee where he had his greatest season of all, scoring 51 goals and adding 33 assists in 58 games. His 51 goals led the league and his 84 points were third overall. He also showed that at 5’6”, he was not one to be pushed around, leading the team with 83 penalty minutes.
Hockey Is His Business…
In 2017-18, Charlie Combs moved on from the juniors, heading for college at Bemidji State University. Charlie majored in business with entrepreneurship as his major, and instantly became a success both on and off the ice. In his first season with the Beavers, the forward scored 13 goals and added seven assists in 37 games. The next season he recorded 11 goals and 11 assists in 38 games.
The 2019-20 season saw Charlie score 12 goals and add six assists. In his first three seasons with the Beavers, he scored 36 total goals and added 24 assists in 108 games. He also starred in the classroom, earning WCHA All-Academic team honors.
In 2020-21, Charlie left Bemidji State, transferring to Michigan State where he appeared in 23 games for the Spartans, scoring six goals and adding four assists. He had already completed his bachelor’s degree and transferred to Michigan State to start working on a Masters in sports coaching and leadership while using his last year of eligibility to remain on the ice.
It was a great opportunity to play for an outstanding college hockey program, while also learning a bit about the heated rivalry between the Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines.
“Playing against that team just one time you can feel the rivalry, and even watching the football game on Halloween it became the school I am never going to root for. It’s funny having Lavi (teammate Hayden Lavigne) here. He’s a Michigan boy, and we definitely poke at each other a bit.”
Reaching for the Stars
After completing the 2020-21 season with the Spartans, Charlie Combs wanted to go professional. There were lots of options out there, but he chose to follow in the footsteps of his highly successful brother. Because of his previous relationships and those his brother had developed with players on the team, the Wichita Thunder seemed like the natural choice.
“Obviously Jack played here. He played under Rammer (Head Coach Bruce Ramsay) and they had a good relationship. I played with Jay Dickman before, and he had nothing to say but good things about the organization and the town and that had a big impact on my decision. Just stepping in the locker room for the first time, they treated me like family from the start. It’s been a perfect fit and I could not have asked for anything better.”
What he appreciated was that, from the moment he joined the team, not only had he been welcomed, but that his teammates had done their best to ensure that his acclamation from the college to the professional game was an easy one.
“Jack had played with a bunch of the guys here and they’ve kind of taken me under their wing which is perfect. They have helped me in many ways and I have learned so much about playing at this level.”
It took a little time for Charlie to get into the starting lineup on a regular basis but, when Stefan Fournier went down, his coach not only made Charlie a regular part of the nightly lineup, but moved him into Fournier’s spot on the top line.
No longer was he the extra forward or relegated to the third line, but was playing with Anthony Beauregard, the ECHL’s top scorer, and Jay Dickman, second in the league among rookie scorers. Charlie quickly discovered that it was extremely easy to mix his game with the two stars.
“They work so well together, and it is very easy to play with them. They just tell me to get open and that’s pretty nice. We can skate and Jay can move. They are both pretty good at protecting the puck and playing down low, and we have learned how to be in the right position for the person who has the puck. It’s just kind of feeding off each other and I think it’s been nice and easy to play with them.”
In 16 games, Charlie has scored three goals and has two assists. He has blended well with that No. 1 line, allowing Head Coach Ramsay to keep his other two lines intact, maintaining a chemistry that is helped lead this team to the top point total in the ECHL. To Charlie, it is a testament to the depth and skill level of the team.
“You can go up and down the lineup and I don’t think we have a weak link. I just think it makes it easier for everyone. It is easy to play with good players and that is what we have here. We have a full lineup of good players.”
While garnering early success in his first professional season, Charlie is acknowledging that the daily grind of professional hockey is not an easy one. Playing four games in a week is quite a bit but, to him, it’s better than the alternative.
“There’s nothing like it, but it’s more fun playing games and practicing for sure. Sometimes it takes a toll on your body, but it’s about making sure you’re putting the right things in your body and making sure that you really do rest up when you have that rest day.”
He’s Just Getting Started
It is hard to live in the shadow of a sibling, especially one as successful as Jack Combs. However, Jack has an eight-year head start on Charlie, and there is no doubt that the younger Combs is destined for greatness as well.
Instead of being a hindrance to his success, Charlie recognizes that it has been a strong relationship that he has with his older brother that has helped him to reach the professional level.
“We’re really close. We hang out every day. We’re working out or shooting every day, or we’re doing other things besides stuff at the rink. It’s been great because he has gone through this whole pro experience and he is still playing overseas, so it is easy to bounce questions off him and he has the best advice. He made it easier to transition into the pros. He has made it a lot easier having an older sibling who has gone through it all.”
However, it is not just his brother that has impacted his success. From the start, it has been the dedication of his parents, especially his mother, who have opened the door for him to pursue his ultimate dream.
“They’re my biggest fans. My mom will do anything for me. Those are the people that I would like to thank the most. They’ve done everything for me and I’ve been playing hockey for 20+ years and it’s hard for them too. It’s been early mornings for them and taking time off work. They’re the best and I have nothing but good things to say about them.”
Plus, there are another group of “brothers” who have helped to spur the success of the Thunder forward – His Wichita Thunder family.
“It’s something where you make your best friendships. You come to the rink every day, laughing with the guys, doing everything with the guys. Even being here just for a little over a month, the relationships with everyone is just perfect. I think brotherhood is the best way to describe our team. No one dislikes anyone, everyone is for each other, we’re rallying for each other, we’re doing the little things for each other to make sure that we don’t disappoint the other guy.”
With about a month left in the 2020-21 Wichita Thunder season, the team is nearly locked into a playoff spot, and will likely be considered one of the favorites to win the Kelly Cup. It has been a deep lineup, spectacular goaltending play, and phenomenal coaching that have put this team on the verge of a playoff berth.
It has also been the play a talented group of rookies, including Jay Dickman, Hayden Lavigne, Alex Peters, Cam Clarke, Dean Stewart, Stephen Johnson, Brayden Watts, and Charlie Combs who have played an integral part in the success of this team. With the impressive play of Charlie and his fellow rookies, this Wichita Thunder team is going to be very hard to beat come June.
In fact, the chemistry, talent, and drive of this team could very well make them ECHL champions. That means that Charlie Combs will do something his older brother has never done before – hold the Kelly Cup in his hands as league champs. However, you can be sure that he won’t be gloating about it. Instead, count on Charlie to be crediting Jack for his success. After all, it takes a star to help cast a shadow.
By Robert Pannier