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What a difference a year makes for the Stockton Thunder.

Here we are, less than two months into the 2006-07 season, and the Thunder have eight fewer wins than they did all of last year.

Entering only its second season in the ECHL, Stockton was expected by many to simply take baby steps after going 18-40-14 in its inaugural season. But under the guidance of 43-year-old head coach Chris Cichocki, the Thunder are one of the hottest teams in the league out of the gate. Fifteen games into the new campaign, the Thunder have lost just once in regulation, going 10-1-4. Remarkably, though, their 24 points have them three points behind the Pacific Division leading Las Vegas Wranglers (with three games in hand) and only four points ahead of the Fresno Falcons, who won the division crown last season and were 50 points better than Stockton.

So, what caused this improbable turnaround?

"I overhauled the roster over the summer,” said Cichocki, who spent time in the NHL as a player with the Detroit Red Wings and the New Jersey Devils in the 1980s. “We only have four guys back from last year. Recruiting went really well over the summer, and the Edmonton (Oilers) affiliation is obviously very nice to have, too. We’re getting scoring from everybody. It’s a good, steady mix.”

Leading the way offensively for the Thunder is 25-year-old center Nathan Martz, who is one of the four returning players Cichocki was referring to. Martz, a fifth-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2000, has four goals and 13 assists in 12 games after going 16-41-57 in 65 contests for Stockton last season. But unlike last year, Martz is having fun coming to the rink every day.

“It’s such a drastic turnaround from last year,” said Martz, a third-year pro. “Obviously, last year we were a first-year team and everything was kind of new. Things are different now.”

Martz admitted it was difficult to become motivated for games last season, especially after the All-Star break when the expansion team’s fate had already been decided.

“I had never been on a losing team before, so it was tough,” said Martz, who played four years at the University of New Hampshire from 2000-04 before his rookie season with the Long Beach Ice Dogs in 2004-05. “You take different things from it and you work on certain things. There were nights where we went to the rink just knowing we weren’t going to win. It was just one of those things.”

But less than a full year later, the Thunder find themselves in the thick of what is becoming a heated race in the Pacific Division. But instead of getting frustrated at the fact that they won’t be cruising to a division title, Cichocki’s squad is focused on picking up two points every night, which, obviously, is the only way they can hope to keep pace with Las Vegas and Fresno for the remainder of the regular season.

“We’re off to a great start, but we’re not running away from anybody, that’s for sure,” Cichocki said. “If you’re going to win you’re division, you’ve got to be ready to play every night and you’ve got to win at home. We can’t lose sight of that.”

“It’s crazy,” Martz said of the division race. “We keep winning these games, but we really haven’t been gaining any ground because of teams like Las Vegas and Fresno. We just have to keep working hard and hopefully we can keep this going.”

The remarkable turnaround in the standings isn’t the only reason Cichocki is smiling these days. After coaching in places like Arkansas and Cincinnati – two franchises that went belly-up after his arrival (Cincinnati returned to the league this season) – Cichocki now coaches in a city that has embraced its hockey team. The Thunder averaged 6,343 fans at the Stockton Arena last season, which was tops in the ECHL. It’s been more of the same this year.

“This is the best situation in the ECHL,” Cichocki said. “You know, for all the hours you put in as a head coach between meetings and watching video, to step out and see 1,200 people in the stands (in Arkansas and Cincinnati) was a downer. But every home game here, there’s 6, 7, 8,000 people. They love their hockey here and the fans are more knowledgeable with each game.”
 
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