In putting together the 15 Western States Hockey League season previews so far, I've noticed an interesting trend: The group of first-year head coaches in the league are some of the toughest hombres around.
The first-year Wichita Jr. Thunder are no exception, as head coach Rob Weingartner definitely is not be the biggest guy around but he played as if he was.
The 5'9" 185 pound native of Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, played a total of eight seasons in the minors, bouncing between the Central, United, International and East Coast Hockey Leagues.
Each year he averaged more than two penalty minutes per game and during the 1996-1997 season, he topped out at an astonishing 384 penalty minutes in just 59 games, while playing for the Louisiana Ice Gators.
Look up some of his YouTube videos and you'll quickly learn of his fighting prowess.
Weingartner was also able to combine that grit with some offensive flair however, topping the 30-point plateau a total of seven times, proving he wasn't your typical knuckle dragger.
After his playing career concluded, Weingartner stuck around the Wichita area, where he had played four seasons with the CHL's Thunder franchise. After two seasons of being an assistant with the club he once played for, he was promoted to the head coach position prior to the 2007-2008 campaign.
Admittedly, his first and only season in charge did not go as well as he might have hoped but Weingartner learned a lot, not only about coaching hockey at a high level but also about the people of Wichita.
It came as no surprise when the Jr. Thunder franchise was approved as part of the 2012 WSHL expansion, that Weingartner was quickly given the job, taking the helm of the first WSHL team in the state of Kansas.
Weingartner joins a group of rugged first-year WSHL bench bosses who weren't pushovers in their playing careers, including Travis Clayton of the Dallas Snipers, Chris Shaw of the Ontario Avalanche and Steve McKenna (assistant) of the Bay Area Seals.
Each and every one of them knows first-hand what it takes to play at a high level against some of the top players in North America and each man was able to carve out a niche for themselves over successful careers.
The first-year Jr. Thunder will benefit from playing under Weingartner and learning hockey the right way, from a man that never took a shift off.
The road will be tough however, as with any first-year franchise they will face their share of struggles, especially playing in an area fairly desolate in terms of high-end youth hockey.
Weingartner sees it as a challenge however and wants the Jr. Thunder to be a big part of growing a stronger youth hockey base in the area, instead of seeing top talent leave for better hockey opportunities in Kansas City or Oklahoma City.
A big plus in the recruiting race is the Jr. Thunder's relationship with the CHL's Thunder, as they are both owned by the same group and practice at the same arena, possibly leading to opportunities for players to move up when their junior careers conclude.
Weingartner is also a proven fan favorite in Wichita, so fans and players alike are excited to see what he can do with a first-year franchise playing in a notoriously rough division.
The Jr. Thunder aren't expected to come into the league and light it on fire but with Weingartner behind the bench, they will surely pride themselves on hard work and tenacity, just as he did during his playing career.
Offense is always a struggle in year one but Weingartner hopes he has found a solid mix of skill and grit up front this season.
The group is led by Andrii Istominov of Ukraine, who has dazzled in recent weeks while skating with a few of the pro guys that are in town.
Chris Sawyer is a 20-year old who played last season in the International Junior Hockey League and will bring his experience to a young Wichita lineup.
Ian Riley is a local boy who grew up playing in Wichita, before moving elsewhere and now returns as one of the guys Weingartner is counting on for production.
Weingartner has a handful of local forwards that will get a chance to impress in two preseason games against the Dallas Snipers on September 14 and 15, in the meantime; he finds himself sifting through a few import players that could help put his team over the top.
Weingartner mentioned a couple of times that the Jr. Thunder will play their home games on an Olympic size sheet of ice. With the extra skating needed, Weingartner isn't much interested in hulking defenseman who are not the smoothest of skaters.
Instead, he's acquired a couple of guys who have both size and skating abilities that should come in handy, at least 21 times.
Braeden Foote hails from Barrie, Ontario, where he is known for being a steady presence on the blueline and also his natural leadership abilities. Another similar player is Lucas Hart, who played youth hockey in Kansas City last season.
Both guys are expected to log big minutes right off the bat and should grow into two of the more solid defenseman on the roster.
Weingartner is still on the hunt for a couple more guys to fill out his back end and will use the preseason games for auditions.
One thing that has been readily available this off-season has been solid goaltending and Weingartner has already filled all three slots.
Dakota McDonald is the youngest of the bunch and the guy they are the highest on, as the 16-year old is already 6'2" 180 pounds. Weingartner realizes there will be some ups and downs with the kid but they like what the Wichita native brings to the table.
Also battling for the top spot are Brian Moore and Marco Medina, two guys that Weingartner is very confident in, should McDonald falter.
He is happy with the fact that he has three solid goaltenders signed and will make use of all of them, as he likes to go with the hot hand.
The Jr. Thunder do get a break in their first season, as their division isn't as tough as it has been in years past.
The El Paso Rhinos and New Mexico Renegades have moved to the Mountain Division, leaving just the Dallas Ice Jets, Texas Jr. Brahmas and Dallas Snipers as the three holdovers.
Wichita and another new squad, the Tulsa Jr. Oilers, jump in and only one out of the five teams will miss the post-season, so the spot is there for the taking.
The Midwest is always physical regardless of who is in the division and the travel is one of the better situations in the league, as the longest trip for the Jr. Thunder is only about six hours into the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Weingartner realizes he has some work to do but also understands that it's not all about wins and losses and he would love to move his players on, regardless of the team's record.
Year one may not be impressive but it won't take a miracle to get into a playoff spot. If his team plays the game half as hard as he did, Weingartner and the Jr. Thunder will exceed expectations immediately.
Brent Maranto is the Director of Communications for the Western States Hockey League