Things change fast in the ECHL. For Matt Thomas that meant being at the helm of a division-leading squad playing an exciting brand of rough-and-tumble hockey one day and having that team fold the next. On Dec. 22 the league announced the Fresno Falcons had ceased operations - the second ECHL team to fold in December after the Augusta Lynx - leaving Thomas to ponder what could have been and how such a thing can be allowed to happen.
“I’m upset,” Thomas told THN.com from his home in Fresno, Calif., between fielding inquiries about his former players. “I think it’s disrespectful to have teams fold mid-season, whether they’re in first place or last place. You work so hard as a group to create and develop a winning environment. To have it taken away right in the middle of it all is tough for everyone.”
Thomas joined the seven-decade-old Fresno franchise as coach and GM in 2005 after playing four years of NCAA hockey at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, two years as part of the coaching staff with the University of Maine Black Bears and three seasons with the ECHL’s Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies, the last as head coach.
The Falcons made it to the Kelly Cup final under Thomas in 2006 and won 76 games over the next two seasons. Along the way, Thomas did just about everything for the Falcons. At one point he even had a hand splicing together old footage of Mike Mathers, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer who died last June, after finding out his jersey retirement ceremony wasn’t slated to include a video tribute.
Coming into this season, Thomas understood Fresno was in financial trouble. But with assurances from ownership the team would make it through the season, he and his staff stuck it out and went about doing their part - building a team that would be successful at the gate and on the ice.
“My teams have always been built on speed and skill,” Thomas said. “We’d be physical, but not overly physical. If we played in your end, we’d be hard to contain. But this year we went out (and got tougher), because the fans here wanted the toughness. And that’s the minor leagues, I get it.
“But we never sacrificed our ability to win. We had tons of speed, tons of skill. We had a third, a third and a third. We were tough, we were fast and we were skilled. How much more do you want? We can’t win every game.”
The new-look Falcons drew about 1,800 fans fewer per game this season than the past two, something Thomas attributes to a move to a downtown arena, a lack of marketing initiative on ownership’s part and a dearth of local media coverage. But the Falcons were leading the Pacific Division and sitting fifth overall at the holiday break. They were also leading the league in fighting majors by a wide margin.
Despite it all, ownership, the City of Fresno and the league pulled the plug on the Falcons, citing financial losses that would reach $500,000 by season’s end, a decision understandable in these tough economic times, but still a relatively paltry sum in pro sports.
The decision meant a further shuffling of the ECHL schedule and again left teams and buildings scrambling to fill dates. Fresno’s final game was a 3-0 victory over the Stockton Thunder on Dec. 20. Two days later, the Falcons were no more.
Things really do change quickly in the ECHL. Many former Falcons players quickly signed-on with new teams and Thomas wasn’t far behind. On Dec. 30 he was announced as the new coach in, ironically, Stockton - just two hours north of Fresno. His first game behind the Thunder bench is Dec. 31 in Alaska against the Aces. And he won’t have to worry about financial troubles any longer, the Thunder lead the league in attendance.