In most of California winter sports primarily means basketball, with a dedicated, yet smaller, contingent of wrestling fans. But, almost forgotten is a core of fans that are diehards from the word “Go.”
They are hockey fans. The National Hockey League has a pair of successful franchises in the state, the San Jose Sharks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
But, there is no CIF-sanctioned high school hockey. There are several colleges in the state that have club hockey teams but almost no one with a NCAA-sanctioned team.
If you travel to the Northeast or the upper Midwest hockey fans outnumber basketball crowds in the high school gyms. More than 19,000 crowd the St. Paul Arena for the four-day Minnesota High School hockey championships, that state’s top draw for prep sports.
Locally, hockey fans travel in decent numbers to the Stockton Arena during the winter for exciting, entertaining (and relatively-inexpensive ticketed) games of the Stockton Thunder.
Now in their tenth season in Stockton, the Thunder has a core of fans clad in hockey “sweaters”, the term for the jerseys in this sport, that sit in the 50-degree climate of the arena.
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The man who calls the play-by-play account of each Thunder game is Brandon Kisker. It’s been a couple years since those broadcasts have been aired by a Stockton radio station. Kisker calls the games over the Thunder website.
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Kisker grew up a big hockey fan. Two years ago he left Cincinnati to work for the Thunder.
“I played hockey when I was basically old enough to walk and to skate,” he recalled. “I remember all the skating lessons and playing youth hockey. My father would take me out at six in the morning to play hockey games. Hockey has always been a passion of mine.”
And, of course, he’s a fan of the Buffalo Sabres, the National Hockey League franchise in that city.
Like many of the Stockton players, Kisker is gaining experience at the minor league level of hockey. The Thunder is a part of the ECHL, which he describes as the “Double-A” level of the sport in this country. The ECHL is made of 29 teams spread all across the country.
“(ECHL) basically doesn’t stand for anything now,” Kisker explained. “It used to be the East Coast Hockey League, but now it’s just called the ECHL because it merged with the Western Hockey League a few years ago. It’s the only league at this level now. There used to be a Central Hockey League, but that league disbanded and those teams came into our league this year.”
This means the players who come through cities such as Stockton are mostly new to professional hockey.
“These guys are really high draft picks,” Kisker said. “On our team we have three second-round draft picks and a few third-rounders, as well.”
Of all the current NHL players, 540 are alumni of the ECHL.
The league has regionalized its regular season schedule to help on travel costs. The Thunder is a part of an eight-team Pacific Conference with teams in, Ontario, Bakersfield, Alaska, Idaho, Colorado and Utah. Those clubs play amongst each other over a 72-game schedule between October and April.
The top clubs in each of the four conferences then go into the ECHL playoffs with the winner getting the Kelly Cup, minor league hockey’s version of the Stanley Cup.
In 2012-2013, the Thunder made it all the way to the Kelly Cup finals before losing in five games to the franchise from Reading, PA.
“The team that season won a lot of games by coming from behind,” Kisker recalled. “They beat Las Vegas and Alaska in seven games, then came back and destroyed Idaho in five and went to the Kelly Cup finals for the first time in franchise history.”
The Thunder has been affiliated the past two years with the New York Islanders. In fact, the Stockton goalies all wear breezers (game pants) with the Islander logo.
The management of the Thunder has been pro-active in obtaining a big clientele of sponsors. News-10 Television broadcasts a weather forecast on the center-ice jumbotron during the game. Each night has different promotional theme and group ticket sales are quite numerous.
On Saturday night, there were almost five thousand fans in attendance, most wearing Thunder “sweaters.”
The Thunder defeated the Alaska Aces that night, 5-3, in a very evenly-played game, showing great hockey skill on both teams.
“These guys aren’t quite on the level of the NHL, but they are developing their skills to be ready for the next level,” Kisker said. “We call this a developmental league for the staff that is in place here, it’s a developmental league for the guys wearing the stripes out on the ice, it’s a developmental league for the guys behind the bench and for the guys on the bench playing.”
Many players will advance to the American Hockey League, the “Triple-A” group of hockey teams, next season.
And like many of their minor league baseball counterparts, the Thunder puts on plenty of unique promotions to continue to develop a following in northern California.
“If you’re not sure you’re a hockey fan, you can come out the 30th of this month and paint the ice,” Kisker suggested. “We’ll play a game on it on the 31st.”
The Thunder did the same promotion last season and it was a first in the sport, according to Kisker.
“We had 845 people come out, paint the ice,” he said. “It was bazaar. ESPN and Sports Illustrated got ahold of it. So, there’s lots of fun things we do.”
On the ice, though, the Thunder has been struggling through the first 23 games of the season. They are 9-12-2, last place in the Pacific Conference. But, if Saturday was any indication, they should be improving as the season progresses.
Rich Kromm is the team’s coach, his second season, with Garrett Hunt assisting as a player-coach.
“Garrett is in his seventh season here,” Kisker said. “He’s been voted as a fan favorite for every single year he’s been here. Defenseman Ryan Constant is in his sixth season with Stockton.”
Their top players are Tyler Shattock and Peter Shivak, but one young, rising hockey star may be Sebastian Collbert. He was assigned to Stockton by the Islanders just a few days ago.
“He’s a really speedy guy, a top European player, drafted in 2013 and was the third-ranked European skater,” Kisker said.
This weekend the Thunder will play three games in three nights in Loveland against the Colorado Eagles starting Friday, a typical weekend schedule in the ECHL.
Stockton returns home for a three-game home series against the Idaho Steelhead Dec. 19-21.
The Thunder promises their games to be a good holiday entertainment alternative. Ticket deals are available on their website, StocktonThunder.com.