Never in a million years did Matt Thomas enter the 2008-09 season under the impression that he'd be coaching anyone but the Fresno Falcons -- the team he'd been working for since 2005.
But just a few days before Christmas, he was told by Falcons ownership that the team could no longer continue to operate. Two months into the season, Fresno -- which was off to an 18-10-2 start -- became the second ECHL franchise to fold during the season. Just a few weeks earlier, the Augusta Lynx suffered the same fate.
"I knew that there was maybe even a 90 percent chance that at the end of the year, we were done unless somebody stepped up," Thomas told NHL.com. "They assured me all summer long that we'd be OK. I went into their office on three separate occasions when other jobs would open in our league or different things popped up. There were warning signs that we were in trouble."
Fortunately, Thomas wasn't out of work for very long.
On Dec. 29, the Stockton Thunder announced the firing of coach Chris Cihocki after a 10-17-4 start. His replacement would be Thomas, who just three years earlier was forced to find work when the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies went belly-up.
"It's tough to leave something that you put a lot of time into," Thomas said. "I felt we were a team that could win it. We had a lot of guys returning and we had the affiliation with Chicago. It was a big shock. They called me a week before Christmas. It's unfortunate because we had a really good team and we had a good thing going."
Suddenly, it's Stockton that has a good thing going.
The Thunder are 13-4-1 since the new coach's arrival and are right in the thick of things in the Pacific Division. Not bad for someone who had never taken over a team in the middle of a season. Not bad for someone who certainly felt awkward walking into Stockton's locker room for the first time on that morning just after the Christmas break.
"The crazy thing is I had to go in and tell four guys that I was going to get rid of them -- either by trading them or waiving them," Thomas said. "I left Fresno at about 4:30 in the morning and got to Stockton at about 7. The players starting rolling in at about 7:30 and I addressed the team. That first moment was a little weird and so was the first game behind the bench ... looking at the different names and numbers. That took a little getting used to."
It couldn't have taken that long considering how the team has performed. Thomas admitted the quick turnaround was crucial as far as his new players buying into his systems and philosophies.
"Basically I just took what's worked for me in Fresno and Atlantic City and implemented that," Thomas said. "We've put a lot into telling these guys what it means to be a professional hockey player every single day and what it means to play for the Stockton Thunder. The guys are having fun. We practiced (Thursday) morning with nine forwards and four defensemen. Guys were having a blast out there, but they understand that it's important to have the right attitude coming to the rink every day.
"We managed to have some success right off the bat, which I think was critical. It's a learning process. Sure, we've got a good enough team to win every night, but every team in this league does. It's just a matter of guys willing to do what needs to be done in order to win every night. That's the challenge coming into any situation."
The challenges that faced him on a daily basis is Fresno compared to those in Stockton have greatly diminished. All Stockton ownership is really asking Thomas to do is develop players and win games.
On top of that, the Thunder will be hosting "Fresno Falcons Tribute Night" on Saturday. In addition to special discount tickets for Fresno fans, the night will include an appearance by "Freddie the Falcon" as well as a video montage saluting the extinct franchise.
"My hope is that this challenge will springboard me to the next level. Whether it's with an NHL club or in the American League, or maybe it's the college level or the major junior level. I don't know. But I know if I keep working hard, things will take care of themselves." -- Matt Thomas
"Just the professionalism of the entire organization has been great," Thomas said. "Everything's taken care of. There's nothing left unattended to. I went to a promotion (Wednesday) night, and it was done first-class. I think the biggest issue for me is that I just get to coach. I don't have to talk a medical provider down for a cheaper MRI. Now I have the opportunity to just concentrate on coaching."
In 16 home games, Fresno was averaging 3,284 fans per game, which ranked 15th in the ECHL. Thomas believed that number could have been higher had the front-office staff been given, well ... an office.
"I think it was a lack of marketing in Fresno ... a lack of sales staff," Thomas said. "We didn't have offices. Everyone had to work from home. It was as poorly run as you can run it. It was real frustrating. Even in Atlantic City when we knew we were done, it was still professional. We had an office, people worked and there were expectations. People weren't held accountable in Fresno. There was no office environment."
Perhaps this is all a blessing in disguise for Thomas, who has done nothing but win since first becoming a head coach in the ECHL in 2005. In his first four campaigns, Thomas has never won fewer than 34 games in a season. He's well on his way to extending that streak to five seasons.
Considering how quickly he's turned things around in Stockton, perhaps American Hockey League clubs will take notice and give the 33-year-old a chance to advance in his career?
"My hope is that this challenge will springboard me to the next level," Thomas said. "Whether it's with an NHL club or in the American League, or maybe it's the college level or the major junior level. I don't know. But I know if I keep working hard, things will take care of themselves."
Around the ECHL
-- The Victoria Salmon Kings acquired All-Star rookie defenseman Aaron Brocklehurst
from the Florida Everblades in exchange for forward Milan Gajic
. ... The Cincinnati Cyclones signed defenseman Chris Clark
. ... Idaho Steelheads forward Dan Welch
was fined and suspended three games for his actions in a Feb. 7 game against Bakersfield. ... Mitch O'Keefe
of the Elmira Jackals was named the Goaltender of the Week after recording two wins, a shutout and a 0.96 goals-against average. ... South Carolina Stingrays rookie Michael Dubuc
was tabbed Player of the Week thanks to a nine-point output (6 goals, 3 assists) in just two games. ... The Trenton Devils acquired defenseman Justin Coutu
from Mississippi in exchange for future considerations.