The ceremony to retire Rob Weingartner’s No. 15 jersey was pitch perfect. The Thunder staff did a nice job keeping the plans secret and Weingartner was surprised and, it seemed, genuinely moved. I used binoculars to watch his reaction, and I’m fairly sure he said, “Oh, my gosh” when his jersey was unveiled in the rafters. Both his wife and daughter, dressed in a Weingartner jersey, wiped away tears. Weingartner’s young boys were there, too, in their youth hockey jerseys.
There is no questioning Weingartner’s love and dedication to Thunder hockey. As noted during the ceremony, he was a “fearless” player and a key member of both championship teams. Last year, he gave up his job to take over the Thunder on an interim basis when coach Mark French was fired. Then-general manager Chris Presson said Weingartner was a finalist for the permanent job, but I don’t think he was given serious consideration. Would Weingartner, had he been hired, have a better record than current coach Brent Bilodeau? Impossible to say. But I do know a Weingartner-coached team would have played hard and hit hard; if not, Weingartner would have found new players. Simple as that.
I thought it was a nice touch to have Marc Belanger, who has been wearing No. 15, skate to center ice and remove his jersey, while the announcer said no one would ever again wear that number. Thunder GM Joel Lomurno planned the ceremony, but he told me that Belanger’s role was Bilodeau’s idea.
As mentioned, I watched Weingarter closely during the ceremony. His most visible reaction came when the announcer mentioned that he played on the two title teams. At that point, Weingartner pumped his fist. That sums up Weingartner to me.
THE SOONER, THE BETTER: While Lomurno (and staff) did a great job with the Weingartner ceremony, I think Lomurno is making a mistake in the handling of Bilodeau’s future. Lomurno told me he will announce his decision later in the coming week. The season will be over tonight, and Lomurno will have all the information he needs. So make the call Monday or Tuesday. Why make Bilodeau, and the fans, wait? Plus, the season ticket holder’s party is Tuesday night. So Bilodeau is gonna mix and mingle with the fans, while everyone wonders if he will be back? Awkward.
DUDA’S RETURN?: I had a pretty long interview with veteran Jason Duda after he scored three points to lead the Thunder to victory on Friday. Duda is always a little coy with his future plans, but he definitely sounded like he wants to return next season. He also told me he will likely have back surgery during the offseason. I knew Duda was suffering from a bad back; I didn’t know it was that serious. I’ll have more from the Duda interview in a story next week.
“JOEL T’S PASSION: Lomurno has taken a lot of heat for the Thunder’s lousy season, and he surely bears some responsibility. But fans are dead wrong if they think Lomurno is content to put a rotten team on the ice as long as the attendance is good. I sit right next to Lomurno during all the home games, and no one in the Coliseum is more disappointed (and sometimes angry) when the Thunder plays poorly. Somehow, Lomurno, a rookie GM, has to use that passion to turn around the franchise. The win on Saturday, and the Weingartner ceremony, allowed fans a rare high note. Overall, though, the Thunder has been embarrassingly bad for two years. One quick anecdote that illustrates how much Lomurno cares for the Thunder, and the players. Last night, an assist for goalie Krister Toews was added to one of the goals. Lomurno immediately made certain the addition was announced to the crowd. Toews’ parents were at the game, and Lomurno knew it would be nice for Toews and his folks to hear the assist announced. A nice gesture.