Wednesday, August 4, 2010

v2, d135: WOF #6: Only in the CHL

One day you're on top of the world, the next day...well, you're not. 

Exhibit A: the 1995-96 Wichita Thunder.

Exhibit B: The Thunder's leading scorer halfway through the year, Mike Chighisola. 

The Thunder were the basement dwellers of the 6-team league in its inaugural season (1992-93), starting 6-20 before picking up a new coach who brought in a bunch of old buddies, including several guys with NHL experience, to try to right the ship.  It worked, and we blitzed through the league the next two years, sweeping the defending champ Tulsa Oilers in 1994 and battling through a six-game series against the San Antonio Iguanas in 1995 (culminating in a 9-4 rout at home to win the title).  Wichita was the biggest fish in the smallest pond in professional hockey.  (Really, it was more like a puddle)  Coach Doug Shedden inevitably got a job in a better league, but that's not what killed the Thunder dynasty.  After the 1995 season, the league decided it wanted to be more of a "developmental" league, limiting the number of veterans any one team could have so that fans would get a better look and "up-and-coming" players.  (I use quotes because, as of today, the only CHL grads to see relatively significant time in the NHL have all been goons. When Wade Brookbank is your league's biggest success story, you're not "developing" a whole heck of a lot)  Over half the Thunder team was now ineligible to return, and the party was over. 

Still, that was no guarantee that the Thunder would necessarily become...well, the 1995-96 Thunder.  The team waited too long to name a new coach, and in that league, the coach was responsible for finding the players.  When Don Jackson took over, all the good players had pretty much signed elsewhere, and he took pretty much whatever he could get. 

What he got was pretty bad, and we went from worst to first and right back again.  Funny thing was, there were some pretty good players.  There were just some really bad ones, too, and the goaltending was awful.  Like, "We coulda really used Major Brad Link" awful.  We gave up 380 goals in 64 games.  Oh, yeah.  We went through six goalies (and finally found one we liked at the end of the year), starting the year with the backup from both championship years (who eventually left because he wanted more playing time) and the guy who inexplicably could not play up to the level the coach had expected from him and was eventually released.  (It was later discovered that the man was completely blind in one eye!!! Can't imagine how that would make your life as a goalie difficult!)  Our next started compiled a 2-10-1 record and only kept getting starts on the virtue of the fact that his backup was even worse. 

It was ugly, folks.  Things kept getting worse, and eventually it started to feel like a bad soap opera.  When our best defenseman (a very late-season acquisition) turned up mysteriously dead in his apartment in Russia the following year, it seemed to fit in perfectly with the oddities that seemed to surround the 1995-96 season. 

Nothing was as strange, however, as the case of troubled scorer Mike Chighisola.  Chighisola had a bit of a tarnished past, but he was really making an effort to start clean in Wichita.  He was a talented player (18 goals and 29 assists through the first half of the season which, keep in mind, is when we had mostly terrible players around him) and seemed to have things in his life going his way finally.  While missing a little time with an injury, Chighisola was even married center ice during intermission of a Thunder game.  Yessir, things were finally looking up for the guy. 

A week later, he was arrested for stealing from teammates, among other things.  Later, it turned out that guys in the locker room had been occasionally losing cash all year long, but the kicker came with Chighisola stole a credit card belonging to Mikhail Kravets (a supremely talented late-season acquisition who somehow managed 71 points in 37 games) and used it to buy a $250-dollar stereo system.  After Chighisola's arrest, supposedly a lot of "stuff" from the year made perfect sense to a lot of folks surrounding the team. 

So there you have it.  The curious case of the '95-96 Thunder.  Back-to-back champs featuring only 4 returning members, trading away the most popular player in team history, handing the keys to a one-eyed goalie and a crook (married at center ice, paid for the honeymoon with cash from the locker room!), and picking up absurdly talented offensive players once it was far too late in the year to do anything with them.  And, for some reason, our mascot was a giant dog.