When the 2016-2017 Wichita Thunder season began, there was great enthusiasm swirling around the team. Not only was one of the most successful coaches in the history of the ECHL taking over the team, but a new affiliation with the Ottawa Senators had many thinking that the this was going to be the season where the team finally left its mark on the league. Since joining the ECHL, the Thunder have never finished better than 73 points and have yet to make the playoffs, and it was hoped that this would be the season where things would turn around.
Through the first 10-games of the season that is exactly how the season looked like it would go. Wichita was 7-3-0 and looked like they would be a real force this season, but injuries to the parent club and to the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League (AHL) led to massive call ups and it was not long before the Thunder were struggling to score goals, miring them in a terrible rut.
With one game left in the season, the Wichita Thunder find themselves at 21-43-6-1, 49-points, yet the record does not tell the tale about this team at all. Despite falling in 47 of the teams last 61 games, the Thunder have played with incredible heart and have been involved in the most one-goal games in the league. Most teams would have quit on themselves, but this Thunder hockey team is as tenacious today as they were four months ago, and that is due in large part to the personality and character of their team captain, Ian Lowe.
Thunder for Life
There are certain players out there whose name becomes synonymous with the team that they played for. One cannot think of the Kansas City Royals without thinking of George Brett or the Cleveland Browns without reminiscing about Jim Brown. These are players who etched their names into the minds of fans, not just by the success that they had on the field but also in the way that they carried themselves off of it. That is what Ian Lowe has done in Wichita.
In his sixth season with the team, Ian has moved up the team’s career leaders lists, playing in his 300th game on February 11 and also recording his 200th point in a Thunder uniform during that contest. His career points total rank him sixth all-time for Wichita.
However, it has not been the numbers that have made Ian Lowe stand out. It is his presence on the ice that has made him a force for the Wichita Thunder. Head Coach Malcolm Cameron calls him “One of those guys that you can always depend upon,” and that has proven to be more so this season than in any other one. In a year where 51 players dawned a Thunder uniform because of call ups and injuries, Wichita has continued to be one of the most difficult teams for opponents to play against, and that is a reflection of the team’s captain.
Hockey Was Just What You Did
Raised in Bradwardine, Manitoba, Ian Lowe knew that hockey was always going to be in his future. From an early age, he found himself on the ice in the winter and on the baseball diamond in the summer. It was simply what you did in the small Manitoban city.
“Where I’m from you play hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer, so you’ve kind of always got something to do no matter what. No matter what you learn to skate when you’re three or four years old and you just kept playing. That’s kind of why I started. My dad always built an outdoor rink behind our house and I just grew up playing on the outdoor rink as soon as I would get home from school. Whenever you would get home from school you would just go out there, then come in and eat dinner, and after supper you would be back out there. It just kinda what were used to growing up.”
In fact, his dad had a greater influence on Ian than simply being the family rink builder. “My dad was a big sports guy growing up since he played lots of hockey growing up. He wanted me to have the opportunity to succeed in everything I did. In fact, both my parents gave me great opportunities.”
Ian grew to love the sport of hockey, and loved the feeling of competing. He was, admittedly, not the most skilled player on the ice and certainly was not the biggest, and that is part of what he always loved about playing hockey – proving that he belonged on the ice.
“I always go back to hard work. I have always been the smaller guy. I’m not as fast and I’m not as skilled as everybody else, so I kind of had to work harder, or be a little smarter, show a little more heart than a guy who is 6 foot three or 6 foot four. I think my tenacity and my willingness to get in there even if the guy is a little bigger than me or stronger than me has always been one thing that has kept me going, and kind of pushed my career into more of the role that I am in, not being scared of anything or anyone.”
Ian understood early on that if he was going to be a difference maker on the ice then he had to work harder than everyone else. In a sport where you can easily be judged on your last game or two, the forward was not going to have it said that someone out worked him for his position.
“It’s not just a sport; you got to work every day out there. There are always people who want to try to take your job. There’s always someone who will try to work for less money than you. You just gotta keep working and work hard whether it’s practice or a game. You got to play the same game to keep your spot. That’s something I really get from my parents. If you are going to succeed you have to work harder than everyone else.”
Taking His Game on the Road
In 2003, Ian Lowe joined the Swan Valley Stampeders of the Major Junior Hockey League (MJHL). He joined late in his first season, appearing in just two games, but the following season (2003-04) he was a major contributor to the team, netting 14-goals and adding 32-assists. It was an outstanding start to his junior career, but was only a small taste of what was to come.
The 2004-05 season saw Ian score 24-goals and add 42-assists, and the following year he increased his goal total to 34 and his total points to 91 in 54-games. It was an impressive performance for a guy that saw himself more as a grinder and hard worker than a scorer.
Following his fourth season in the MJHL, Ian opted to go to college. One of the coaches
at Bemidji State was from the same parts as Ian and offered him the opportunity to come and play hockey in Minnesota. For the first two seasons, he was more of a role player, scoring 4 total goals and adding 16 assists in 57-games, however, he did help the Beavers reach the Frozen Four in his sophomore season, a moment in his life that he cherishes as one of his biggest hockey highlights.
“That was a big deal in college to get to that plateau. To be that close to winning the championship. There was some turmoil around the school because school officials were unsure whether our hockey program would stick around the following year or not. We were without a conference, and essentially, the success we had that season kept the program at Bemidji and solidified their spot in college hockey. It was something that no one envisioned we could do and I will never forget that experience.”
In his junior season, Ian appeared in all 37-games, running a streak of consecutive appearances to 50. He would increase that to 88 the following year. It was a huge year for the then junior who scored 21-goals and had 31 total points. He also was second on the team with a +/- rating of +25. It was not just the numbers he was putting up but when he was providing them. For example, Ian had the first 2-goal game of his career against college hockey powerhouse Minnesota-Duluth, who was ranked No. 4 in the country at the time.
Ian also proved to be much more than a hockey player at the school. At a university that prides itself for its strong academics, he earned All-CHA Academic awards and was among the top in his class academically. He also earned Second-Team All-College Hockey America honors and was the CHA’s Breakthrough Player of the Year.
In his senior season his goal numbers would drop, but he would prove to be more of a playmaker, scoring 12-goals and adding 16-assists. He also continued to achieve in the classroom, earning academic honors, his third such honor, and graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Industrial Technology with an emphasis on Construction Management.
Ian finished his career at Bemidji State with 37-goals and 42-assists in 132-games. He had shown that he had quite the scoring touch but, in true Ian Lowe fashion, he is not patting himself on the back for his success.
“I think the difference between my first couple of years and my last two was just getting more comfortable and getting more opportunity to play well. I had two really good linemates, one who is in the NHL right now and the other who is playing in Europe, so I think that was kinda why I was doing really well. It was those guys who were giving me the scoring opportunities.”
Go Pro Young Man
After a successful run at Bemidji State and with his degree in hand, Ian Lowe wanted to continue his playing career. He looked around at the professional game and realized that there clearly was an opportunity for him to make it.
“You see guys start to sign contracts, not necessarily in the NHL, but you see them in the American League and in the East Coast and you just kinda want to give that a shot and see what it’s like. You sign hoping that maybe you can make a little career
out of this.”
In 2011-12 he would split time between the Idaho Steelheads (ECHL) and the Texas Stars (AHL). He only appeared in Texas for six-games, but made 68 appearances in Idaho, scoring 10-goals and adding 26-assists.
It was clear that the pro game was in no way above his head, and the next season he would come to Wichita to join the Thunder. The 2012-13 season was his best offensively as a pro. Ian scored 28-goals and added 31-assists in 66-games. He helped to lead Wichita to the CHL finals, where the team lost to the Allen Americans in overtime of Game 7. It was a huge moment that is also included in his hockey highlights portfolio.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be proud of when we lost to Allen. We had such a good team that went all the way to the finals and it was kind of cool to go on that whole run. Obviously, we didn’t win the championship, but we were so close and you realize how hard it is to win a championship, no matter what level you’re talking about, it’s hard to win a championship. So, when you’re that close to winning you’re always going to remember stuff like that.”
Born to Lead
Ian Lowe has not reach the same offensive numbers as his first in Wichita, but he has brought something much more significant to the team. He clearly was born to lead, and it was not long before he was expected to take on a more active role with the team. That has culminated this season with Coach Cameron naming him the Wichita Thunder’s team captain for the 2016-17 season. This is a role that he has embraced, not only because it fits so well into his character, but also demands that he step out of his comfort zone.
“This year I’ve tried to do a little more, to be more vocal. Not just show them, but to talk a little bit more, be a more vocal person and just try to guide them because there are not many older players on the team. There were not as many players who have been around the league for a while, so I think I have been trying to do a little bit more to make sure they’re okay and that they learn how to make a career out of this sport.”
Because of promotions and injuries, the Thunder have had a lot of young players on the ice each night. In fact, Wichita has had more games played by rookies this season than any other team, and has played a significant number of games with 10 or more rookies in the lineup. This has required strong leadership from the team captain to keep the team working hard through their struggles, but has also meant that he has had to open himself up to some good-natured ribbing to keep a positive attitude in the locker room.
“I enjoy coming to the rink and seeing these kids. Some are 10 years younger so that is a little different. I enjoy coming to the rink and seeing them, hanging out with them. I love coming around the locker room and joking around with them. Obviously, I get a lot of old jokes thrown at me, but that’s fine; I can deal with those.”
He may be the oldest guy on the team, but what makes Ian such a special player and a great leader is that he may be the youngest at heart. It is clear that he is having a lot of fun on the ice and that he still has the same passion that he did when he was 10 or 11.
“I just love going to the rink every day. I love going to the dressing room and BSing with the guys, hearing their stories and telling stories. You know the road trips are good too. You get out on the bus and you have fun, laughing and having a good time. I still love competing and being out in the ice knowing those kids are trying to outplay me. I don’t want for them to show me up so I like going out there and working hard, showing them that I can still play.”
No Quit in Ian Lowe
As the Wichita Thunder play their last game of the season today, some will look back on the campaign and see it as a huge disappointment. A season that started out so promising is going to end with a last place finish in the Central Division.
However, this has not really been a season of disappointment at all. At times, a team has to go through growing pains to reach the top of the hill, and all the experience that younger players have attained bodes well for how good this team will be next season.
While the young Wichita Thunder players have gained invaluable experience on the ice, they have also been able to have a rink side seat in watching one of the most professional and hard-working players who ever dawned a pair of skates. At 5-9, Ian has always been on the smaller side in comparison to many of the opponents he plays against, but he has played with more heart than any three players. It is the way he wants to be remembered when his playing career is over.
“I have always tried to be the guy who doesn’t back down; who always brings the same thing every day. A guy who works hard and works hard every day, no matter whether it’s practice or a game or whatever it is. I just want to do the same thing every day I go to work.”
Ian Lowe’s playing days are far from over, if he so chooses. With 9-goals and 14-assists this season he is not likely to be a 20-goal scorer again, but the intangibles he brings to the Thunder make him as valuable as a 40-goal scorer or a goalie with a goals against average of 2.25. The Captain has set a standard in Wichita for how a hockey player should be, and there is no doubt that years from now when people think of Wichita Thunder hockey the first name that will come to mind is Ian Lowe.
By Robert Pannier