When Bruce Ramsay recruited players last summer to skate for the Wichita Thunder, which had just hired him as coach, he told them he'd do his best to make them All-Stars.
“And now they are, so it's worked out well and I've lived up to my promise,” Ramsay said with a laugh.
The Thunder will play host to the ECHL's All-Star Classic at 8 p.m. today at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas. The four-team 3-on-3 tournament will include a squad representing the Eastern Conference, one representing the Western Conference and two teams made up of Ramsay's Wichita players.
Ramsay was a player/assistant coach with the Komets under Dave Allison in 1999-2000, Fort Wayne's first season after dropping to the Double-A level.
Ramsay wants his players to perform well on a national stage – the tournament will be aired on NHL Network – but more than anything he wants them to enjoy the event.
“When you get off the pressure of winning hockey games in this league, this is a step down,” Ramsay said. “Obviously, the best players in the league are coming here. I'm sure the expectations are there, as they should be, when you have the best players in the league on one team and your team is on the other.
“But I know our guys and we're going to go out there and work hard, see what happens. The All-Star Game is there for fun and it's a great opportunity. Some of these guys will never play in something like this for the rest of their lives, so it's great they can come in and enjoy it.”
Wichita is 18-19-7, good for fifth place in the Mountain Division, and seem improved from last season's 29-31-12 campaign. The Thunder had a stretch from Jan. 10-12 in which it didn't give up a goal in nine straight periods and went 2-0-1, though Wichita is on a three-game losing streak now.
Considering Ramsay brought back only two players from last season – Stefan Fournier and Lane Bauer – he knew it would take some time to gain cohesiveness.
“We're working at it,” Ramsay said. “I basically had an expansion team to put together. ... We've had our ups and downs. I'm enjoying it. It's good to be back (coaching). I've got a great group of kids here, so it's fun to go to work every day.”
Ramsay, 50, has another former Komets player, John Gurskis, 44, as his assistant coach. They met in Fort Wayne, where Ramsay had six goals, 27 points and 241 penalty minutes in 65 games, and Gurskis had 14 goals and 28 points in 42 games.
Ramsay has since been the head coach of six teams – including Fort Wayne opponents Port Huron, Muskegon and Tulsa – and his Muskegon Lumberjacks team lost to the Komets in the 2009 International Hockey League Finals. Gurskis, a former Wichita player, skated for Ramsay in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League.
“He's made my life a lot easier, and it's great to have him here,” Ramsay said of Gurskis, who is in charge of the Thunder's defense and skills work.
Ramsay and Gurskis will separately coach the two Wichita All-Star squads.
The Komets' had one player selected to play for the Western Conference, forward Shawn St-Amant, but he's unable to participate because of an upper-body injury.
Three world-class women's players, Dani Cameranesi, Kali Flanagan, Gigi Marvin and Annie Pankowski, will be divvied up among the all-star teams as part of a partnership with Professional Women's Hockey Players Association.
Ramsay, who was the United Hockey League's all-time leader in penalty minutes, a stretch that included his time as a left wing with the Komets, admitted that his type of play wouldn't necessarily jibe with the ECHL of today.
“The game has changed so much. You can't put teams together like that anymore and expect to win,” said Ramsay, an assistant coach under Todd Nelson with the American Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins from 2015 to '18.
“In order to be successful in this league nowadays, you have to have that toughness, that's a huge part of it still. But you have to keep it more like a team that plays heavy, with guys who are willing to drop the gloves if they have to, and they have to be able to play and have to be able to move their feet. And they have to be intelligent.”
ECHL All-Star Classic
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Intrust Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.
TV: NHL Network