For two decades the Wichita Thunder were one of the better teams that competed in the now defunct Central Hockey League (CHL). Beginning in 1992-93, the Thunder won titles in 1994 and 1995, and made the playoffs 13 times in 22-seasons. They were truly one of the better clubs in the league, not only in terms of success on the ice, but also how they were run as an organization.
In 2014, the CHL ceased to exist as a league and the Thunder and six other teams moved to the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), creating one of the premier minor leagues in all of hockey. It was a move that put Wichita on the map as a great place for an aspiring hockey player to hone his skills and for the city to get to see outstanding hockey each and every night.
While some outstanding talent has come through the city, the team did not fare well in their first two seasons in the ECHL. A fifth place finish in 2014-15 was followed up with an 18-41-7-6 record last season (49 points), the worst record in the league. It was clear that if the team was going to compete that some dramatic changes needed to be made and the 2016-17 season comes upon us with a whole new look to the team that should make them as competitive as any in the ECHL.
I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better. -Georg C. Lichtenberg
Fans of the National Hockey League are no strangers to coaching changes. In 2001, Larry Robinson guided the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup finals and was out of a job the next season. Coaches are expected to produce right away and failure to do so nearly always results in a generous severance package. Following the 2015-16 season, this would be the result for Kevin McClelland. The Wichita Thunder decided to make a change, opting not to resign their coach.
That led to an opening that saw hundreds of candidates send in their resume and contact the club about the position. While many may not consider Wichita to be the ideal location to coach the sport, this is a great hockey town and a golden opportunity to return a team to its former glory.
The Thunder were also looking for a coach that could take them to new heights in their new league. While struggling for only two seasons, that was two seasons too many, and they had an idea of exactly what kind of coach that they wanted.
While several candidates had their materials reviewed by General Manager Joel Lomurno and the team’s owners, only one was asked to make a visit to Wichita to meet with the team – Malcolm Cameron. Coach Cameron had an impressive resume that made him the ideal choice, which included seven seasons in the ECHL as a head coach. He understood exactly what it took to win in this league and was the right kind of teacher, motivator, and winner the team was looking for. On April 20th, Malcolm Cameron became the team’s 13th head coach in their history.
The changes did not end there however. Less than three months later the Wichita Thunder became the ECHL affiliate of the Ottawa Senators. Because of the kind of first class way that the Thunder ran their organization and the fact that they had one of the most respected coaches in all of hockey on their bench, the Senators became the first National Hockey League team to make an affiliate deal with the Thunder.
This was going to change the club in many ways. Not only was Ottawa going to be sending players to Wichita and moving Thunder players to other clubs, but Wichita fans were going to get a first-hand look at players that could potentially be in the NHL, even as early as this season. It was an exciting moment for the club that the team’s new coach knew would be great for the Thunder.
“We’re very excited to be entering into this partnership with the Senators,” explained Coach Cameron when the deal was signed. “Thunder fans will have an opportunity to see potential future Senators wearing Wichita jerseys this season while watching players progress throughout the season.
There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction. -Winston Churchill
Inking an affiliate deal with the Ottawa Senators was a huge step for the team, but so was the hiring of Malcolm Cameron. He came to the Wichita Thunder with an impressive set of credentials, especially when he has been placed in charge of a team that was struggling when he was named the head coach.
Cameron played nine seasons as a professional, retiring at the age of 28 when his body “gave out” as he puts it. He played in the East Coast Hockey League for two of those seasons, and became quite familiar with the style of play and what it took to be a success in the league. His most productive season was in 1993-94 when playing for the Huntington Blizzard of the ECHL. In 68-games that season he scored 9-goals and had 29-assists.
The 1997-98 season would be his last as a player, but he wanted to stay around the game that he loved so much. Coaching became the perfect avenue to be able to do so.
“It was also a way to stay close to the game. I’ve been involved in hockey since I was five-years-old, and I’m 47-years-old now. So, 42 years of my life I’ve been in this game. I’ve been very blessed to be working in the game and to be making a living in it. I knew that this is what I wanted to do, that I wanted to stay close to the game and this was as close to playing as you can get.”
His choice to move to the bench was not based solely on his desire to stay in the game. The Coach always knew that the strategy of the game was really intriguing to him. He loved figuring out how to outmaneuver opposing players and coaches, and to build a strategy to be one-step ahead of the competition.
“I’ve always seen the game differently, especially later in my career, I looked at it from a different perspective, almost like a chess match. As I got a little bit older and I was playing pro I realized the prep work that went into building your strategy, and your game plan based upon what other teams do. So I like that, that kind of chess match mentality.”
In 2000, Cameron moved into his new profession. He was named as an assistant for Lubbock of the Western Professional Hockey League. He would stay there for just one year before joining the Columbia Inferno of the ECHL.
After two seasons as an assistant, Coach Cameron got his chance as a head coach. He took over the helm of the Cincinnati Cyclones for the 2002-03 season, leading the team to a 36-29-7 record. They would lose in the conference finals, but the Coach had proven that he had what it took to be a great head coach.
His next two seasons were spent as an interim head coach, first for the Columbus Stars and then for the Corpus Christi Rayz. In 2004-05 he would finally get a real shot at leading a team and the results were phenomenal. He took over the Long Beach Ice Dogs, which had the worst record in the ECHL and led them to a 43-20-9 record and a playoff berth. That was a 44-point improvement from the record that the Ice Dogs had the previous season, and still ranks as the eighth biggest turnaround in league history. The Coach would spend two seasons in Long Beach where he took the team to the playoffs in both seasons.
In 2006-07, Coach Cameron moved on to the Texas Wildcatters. It was time for him to work his magic again, and that is exactly what he did. The Wildcatters posted a 41-22-9 record, which was a 46-point increase over the prior year. That is the seventh best turnaround in ECHL history, and he took Texas all the way to the conference finals before they finally fell.
In the 2007-08 season, Texas was just ungodly good, winning 52 of their 72 games, a .799 winning percentage. The 115-points is the second most in a single season and the winning percentage is also second best all-time. The Coach proved that he truly was a master at strategy.
The next two seasons he would spend with the Florida Everblades, where his teams went to the playoffs each season. Finally, in 2011-12 he would spend the season with the Elmira Jackals, where his team went 22-23 in 52-games with him as the interim head coach.
Be the change that you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gandhi
After eight amazing seasons in the East Coast Hockey League, Malcolm Cameron decided that it was time for a new challenge. He had proven that he could do it all. In his time in the league he had 317 coaching wins, currently ranked eighth all-time and had earned 34 playoff wins as well, currently ranked 12th. He was looking to do something a little different, so he headed to the Western Hockey League. It was a chance to be more of a teacher, something he was longing to do more of.
“I probably wasn’t as much of a teacher the last time I was in the ECHL, because you get them a little more polished at the pro level then you do at the junior level or at the college hockey level. They’re still pretty rough around the edges while pro guys are a little more polished. But I left the ECHL level to go work in juniors because that’s where I really wanted to be teaching. You’re teaching 16 to 21-year-old prospects. The Western Hockey League produces 20 percent of the National Hockey League players. It’s a real teaching league. You have 16-year-olds that you’re trying to teach while you also got 20-year-olds, who were at the other end of the spectrum, who have completely different needs and emotions and all of those things, so you learn patience.”
His first season in the league he served as an assistant to the Regina Pats, but in 2013-14 he became the team’s head coach. While he was teaching his team to be better hockey players, he was also teaching them how to win. The team went 39-26 and made the playoffs, proving that Coach Cameron had surely not lost his touch on how to out X and O his counterpart on the other bench.
“Your game plan is based upon how Team X is playing in the system that they run. You know in advance that this is what they do, so this is what we do to counter them. They’re going to make an adjustment during the game so you make an adjustment to counter that. Its back and forth and back and forth. I love that aspect of it – the one-upsmanship or gamesmanship. You’re directly involved in the outcome of the hockey game by the work that you do, by the team that you build and by the preparation that you put into it. The motivation that you try to instill in your players.”
Winning is incredibly important to the Coach, but he wants to be a teacher of these men more than anything. While he has become more patient and improved his teaching skills immensely since when he first started as a coach, he also has learned to understand his players better. The young men are a lot different than when he first started coaching and he has had to change with them as well.
“This generation of players is such a visual group. In my day if the coach would’ve told you to go stand on the boards, unquestionably you would’ve stood on the boards, and you’d stand there until he told you to move. Now guys want to know why and they want to see it. What is the benefit of going over there and what are we trying to accomplish? They have questions that they want to ask and so you have to teach.”
If you don’t like change, you will like irrelevance even less. -General Eric Shinseki
The 2015-16 season will open Saturday night with the “Miracle Worker” of the hockey world looking to make a dramatic improvement for the third time in his career. Malcolm Cameron saw a great opportunity to return to the ECHL when the Wichita Thunder job came open. He just could not resist another great opportunity to take a struggling franchise and to try to turn it into a winner.
“I love the challenge of it. It’s easy to take over a team that has a ton of assets and a winning culture and a winning background; it’s a lot harder to do it this way, but you get a lot more job satisfaction out of it.”
To do so, the Coach has brought a whole new style and attitude to the team. Malcolm Cameron is a man who loves the game of hockey, and he expects that same kind of passion for the sport out of his players. He wants a team that is not only dedicated to their craft but also to one another.
“You got to be passionate. Enthusiasm comes from passion. You can’t do something without putting your heart and soul into it, because you get half-assed results if you don’t. I think that’s why corporations succeed. You have to be all in and want to succeed as a group or you will fail as a group. Passion for your team leads to greater success.”
The new Thunder Coach has also instituted what he calls “high-octane hockey” with the team. He understands that you need grinders and you have to battle for victories, but he wants to put pressure on his opponents from the opening faceoff, and has ensured that he has a team that can play his style.
“Warp speed, that’s what we’re going to try to play. But you got to get the kind of players that can play that way. It’s nice that you want to play a certain kind of way but if you don’t get the horses to do it then you can’t do it.”
Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts. -Arnold Bennett
This has been a very busy offseason for the Wichita Thunder. A new coach, a new affiliation and virtually a new team. Only four of the 23-players on the team’s roster played for the Thunder last season. The Ottawa Senators have provided some of the team’s players, but the Coach has gone out and found a lot on his own team to be able to play his style of hockey. That has meant that he has enjoyed giving some players a shot to continue to follow their dream. It has also meant that he has had to do the one job that he hates the most – letting players go. He understands that’s part of the business, but doesn’t like it one bit.
The players understand that he has to make these tough decisions. That is part of the process of making the team better. The organization and the fans want a winning team in the city and they expect that Malcom Cameron will bring lightning in a bottle as he has in other cities, creating a dramatic turnaround with this team that will take them to the playoffs.
We won’t likely know how much this team has improved for a couple of months, but there are three things that Wichita Thunder fans can be sure of. The team will be fast and skilled, the players will be instructed by one of the best in the game, and this team will be one of the hardest working in the East Coast Hockey League. Maybe lightning in a bottle won’t bring a 40-point improvement, but it will bring a lot of success in other ways. After all, change may not be easy, but it sure will look fun this season.
Featured Image Courtesy of the Wichita Eagle/Kansas.com
By Robert Pannier