Thunder rumbling in Harrington: Hockey team scoring points with fans

Alfie Weymouth, center, cheers with other Thunder Pack members during Friday’s Delaware Thunder professional ice hockey game against the Battle Creek Rumble Bees at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

HARRINGTON — They banged drums, chanted and cheered passionately, wore helmets with horns and blew horns as well.

Fans had plenty to root for last Friday night inside the Centre Ice Arena at the Delaware State Fairgrounds.

The home favorite Delaware Thunder scored early and often during a 13-2 victory over the Battle Creek (Mich.) Rumble Bees, ending a 14-game losing streak. They skated to another win Saturday night, improving their record to 10-30.

“It’s a very loud barn for being small but the fans really pack it,” said 24-year-old defenseman Alex Basey, a team captain from Oshawa, Ontario near Toronto.

“We hear them from the bench for sure and 100 percent it gets us all into the game.”

A minor league ice hockey player’s life is rarely if ever glamorous, but they’ve drawn positive attention around here.

“Word has been getting around,” Mr. Basey said.

“I’ve had a few people lately coming up to me in the grocery store saying ‘Hey you’re from the Thunder, right?’ That’s kind of cool.”

The franchise has a three-year agreement to stay in town, and hopes that bleacher upgrades and a fan friendly lobby with high top tables and comfortable chairs will extend the run past that.

Thunder president, general manager and head coach Charlie Pens Sr. can see that happening.

The Delaware Thunder celebrate a goal against the Battle Creek Rumble Bees Friday at the Delaware State Fairgrounds.

“The support from the fans and the area business community have exceeded my expectations by a lot,” he said. “People here are loyal and we want to provide them with a team that takes a blue collar approach, is hard hitting and comes to work every day prepared to play hard.”

On Friday night, early arriving fans socialized with food and drink during pregame warmups before turning full attention to the game that began at 7:05 p.m. A top notch sound system (amplifying the energetic announcers and steady stream of classic rock favorites including Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen) added to the atmosphere.

“I’m glad they’re here because it’s something Delaware needed, something Kent County especially needed,” said Harrington resident Scottie Minner, attending his fourth game of the season.

“Unless it’s state fair time we don’t have any reason to come here, so to have this now — a professional sport team in Harrington — is great.”

Standing nearby was Mr. Minner’s 10-year-old son Briar, anxiously waiting to chase after a souvenir.

“If a puck flies into the stands we get to keep them,” he said with a huge smile. “It’s really exciting to get something that’s actually been used in the game.”

Chris Walton and Jillian Wufsus traveled from Kenton on a date night to experience Thunder ice hockey for the first time.

“I heard about it from people at work who came to a game and said they had a blast,” Mr. Walton said. “These were people I wouldn’t think were sports fans. Now that we’re here I gotta say it’s more than I expected.”

Added Ms. Wufsus, “It’s exciting, it’s super exciting.”

Connecting with community

After games, Thunder players make it a point to mingle with their fans, sign autographs for the kids and generally connect with the community.

At least nine Thunder are from Canada, six from the United States (Maryland, California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts), two from Russia and the rest from Latvia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Thunder Pack members Kenneth Smith and Megan Faulkner cheer during the Delaware Thunder professional ice hockey team during a game against the Battle Creek Rumble Bees on Friday.

The roster changes at times, but coach Pens said there’s generally a low turnover.

“For the most part we’re sticking with who we have because we want to give all of them a chance to thrive,” he said.

Players receive modest salaries, but also have their housing and medical needs covered by the team and enjoy “great food deals,”
according to coach Pens.

“This is a league of opportunity,” he said.

Basey affirmed that mantra.

“All of us are about moving to the next level,” Mr. Basey said. “The harder you work the better chance you have to move up.”

For six months, Harrington is a home away from home. Mr. Basey and other teammates stay with host families. The season opener was Oct. 18 and concludes at the end of this month.

“They’re awesome,” Mr. Basey said. “We couldn’t appreciate any more having people look out for us like they do. It’s the closest thing we can have to being home.”

The Federal Prospects Hockey League includes teams from Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois and North Carolina.

Hockey fans watch and cheer the Delaware Thunder as they play the Battle Creek Rumble Bees at the Delaware State Fairgrounds on Friday.

“The league is known to be tough and grinding,” Mr. Basey said. “We’re seen as a tough team that’s known for crashing and banding, winning pucks out of the corners and just plain battling hard.”

The Thunder has homestands remaining March 13-15, March 20-21 and March 27-29. More information is available online at delawarethunder.com or by calling 398-PUCK.

Aches and pains

Between games, the Thunder take their aches and pains to Delmarva Chiropractic and Wellness Center.

“We’re pretty connected,” said Dr. Jesse Riggin, the team’s chiropractor. “My office sees the guys every single week.

“They come in with a lot of spinal complaints; these guys are checking into the boards every single week and sitting on a bus two to 14 hours at a time during road trips.

“Their backs and necks hurt just like everyone else for obvious reasons.”

All the roughhousing comes while the helmets, shakes and pads are on and the adrenaline flowing. That’s hardly the case when visiting the chiropractor.

Hockey fans stand along the glass to watch the Delaware Thunder play the Battle Creek Rumble Bees in Harrington on Friday.

“If you watch them on ice, they really do have a switch that turns on and off,” Dr. Riggin said. “You see them fighting and playing rough and aggressive during a game and when they come into the office they’re incredibly respectful and awesome to work with, they’re friendly with staff and are generally just nice people to be around.”

Dr. Riggin sees players every week and finds them driven to achieve more.

“They’re all chasing their dreams and to help them in some way during that quest is a pretty neat thing to be a part of,” Dr. Riggin said.

Recent visits to the Harrington Business Association — Dr. Riggin is the organization’s vice president — brought a coach and player to the local forefront.

“They were kind of the stars,” Dr. Riggin said. “Coach Lou (Santini) had such a good perspective and brought such energy that you don’t typically see in a business presentation.”

Dr. Riggin said the 40- to 50-member business association is teeming with Thunder fans.

“They bring a noticeable sense of energy to the business association,” he said. “It gives everyone something to rally around, it gives us something to all be excited about.

“It’s not political, it’s pure energy and gives us something to all pull for together instead of creating a divide in some way.”