Wild about Des Moines10/9/2013
When the puck drops to the ice at 7:05 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 12 at Wells Fargo Arena, as the Iowa Wild faces off with the Oklahoma City Barons to open its 2013-14 season, it will mark the return of professional hockey to Des Moines following a four-year absence and the beginning of what fans, team officials and local leaders hope will be a long and prosperous partnership.
“Opening weekend (Oct. 12-13) is a great time to come out and see what we’re about, and we’ll turn you into fans for life from there,” said Todd Frederickson, president of the Iowa Wild, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate to the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild.
Promise of longterm AHL hockey success in Des Moines is nothing new. Remember the Iowa Stars (2005-2008) and the Iowa Chops (2009)?
Yet something tells Polk County Board of Supervisor Tom Hockensmith, who grew up playing the sport, that the third time might be the charm for an AHL team in Des Moines.
“When the last AHL team left town, we weren’t beating the bushes looking for another one. Things were going well at Wells Fargo Arena from a budget standpoint with the (Iowa) Energy, the (Iowa) Barnstormers and concerts, so we knew that it had to be the right fit for hockey,” he said. “When the Minnesota option came up, we were excited about it because of the Wild’s reputation in the NHL. The fact that they’re close geographically, and there’s synergy between Minnesota and Iowa, made a big difference to us, as did how they’ve made such a solid commitment to the metro.”
For the Minnesota Wild, the decision to move its AHL operation to Des Moines was as instinctual as an uncontested slap shot. It was unable to secure a lease agreement for its previous AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, which played its home games for 10 years at the Toyota Center, and Wells Fargo Arena was available. On April 18, it was announced that the Aeros would move to Iowa’s capital city and change its team name.
“We were looking at venues and knew that Des Moines had AHL hockey before and that Wells Fargo Arena was a great facility. Having our players three-and-a-half hours south of St. Paul made all the sense in the world as far as travel. A guy can get called up in the day and be in St. Paul that night for a Minnesota Wild game,” said Frederickson. “When we checked with our database, we learned there were tens of thousands of Minnesota Wild fans in Iowa. And after being here for four months, we’ve met a lot of them, and we know there will be more Wild fans in the next three to five years.”
In addition to its location, venue and fan base, Frederickson cited Des Moines’ reputation as a close-knit community as another attribute for relocating here. Subsequently, the Iowa Wild has fostered relationships with several businesses, as well as community service and youth sports organizations, and implemented outreach programs in hopes of creating a positive, lasting relationship with Greater Des Moines. Most notable among these efforts, has been its commitment to local children.
This fall, the Iowa Wild launches its Wild About Reading program in which students at elementary and middle schools can participate in a literacy program and earn free tickets to an Iowa Wild game. Teachers can register their classroom online (www.IowaWild.com) for the two-week program and receive supplemental materials and instruction as well as a classroom visit from a player or mascot.
The team is also sponsoring a floor hockey program, for 50 area elementary schools and will provide them each with 10 white and 10 green Iowa Wild jerseys and equipment to use in physical education classes.
“Floor hockey is a normal part of PE programs and we think it’s an opportunity to teach hockey in Des Moines,” said Frederickson.
The Iowa Wild is also supporting youth hockey at all local levels, from partnering with the Des Moines Youth Hockey Association and high school hockey leagues (Midwest High School Hockey League, Des Moines Capitals, Des Moines Oak Leafs), to providing their players opportunities to skate at Wells Fargo Arena and to complete game time duties such as announcing player lineups and goals.
“The Des Moines Youth Hockey Association is a terrific group, and we think we can help them grow their program,” said Frederickson. “We also want to give their players a professional experience when they come to our games. When the building’s full and a little kid skates down the ice and scores a goal, the crowd probably screams louder than it does when the team scores.”
Hockensmith said he was impressed when the Iowa Wild also reached out to the Des Moines Buccaneers, the town’s longtime amateur hockey team.
“It’s one of the first things they did because they know that they can help each other,” he said. “That’s a great thing, because you don’t want to disenfranchise them.”
Frederickson said the long-running success of youth and amateur hockey, as well as the number of NHL fans in town, proves that Des Moines is a hockey town.
“Everyone always thought Des Moines had a hockey problem because of what happened here with the previous AHL teams, but it doesn’t,” he said. “There’s a solid core group of hockey fans here, and there are a lot of people just looking for a fun time on a weekend, so it’s important to have an atmosphere in our arena.
“It doesn’t matter how well the team plays, it’s the atmosphere that attracts fans and families. You can’t depend on wins and losses. We’re a development league, and it’s a challenge with players constantly being called up. From a fan’s standpoint, we have to be entertaining because that’s what we’re selling more than anything.”
To help attract hardcore and casual fans alike, the Iowa Wild have scheduled several promotional events, including theme and charity nights (Pink in the Rink, Teddy Bear Toss) and $2 Beer Night for every Friday home game. They are also selling family four packs for $44 every Sunday game that include game tickets, food and hats.
“When we get a person who says they’re not a hockey fan, that’s terrific because we’re much more than that,” said Frederickson. “I guarantee that if you go to an Iowa Cubs game they’ll tell you that not everyone there is a baseball fan, but they’re a fan of fireworks, promotions and nice weather.”
Another way to attract fans, team officials say, is to offer affordable tickets. Single-game tickets in the lower level cost as little as $9, while season tickets on the glass sell for $1,102.
According to Frederickson, who previously served as the AHL’s vice president of team business services and led the league to five consecutive years of ticket sales and corporate sales growth, the Iowa Wild has exceeded its goal for season ticket sales.
“It was important that we didn’t come in with a price that was inappropriate. It’s an extremely healthy ticket base and one we can grow,” he said. “Our goal was to sell 1,300 season tickets, and we’ve already sold 1,400. We were pleasantly surprised and we only had four months to get going while a typical team gets 12 to 16 months to relocate.”
Frederickson said that the Iowa Wild’s commitment to the community and the reputation of its NHL team have helped turn naysayers into believers.
“There are Minnesota Wild fans and hockey fans who are glad that we are here,” he said. “Then there’s a whole group of people we’ve had to reach out to and explain why AHL hockey will work this time. They are skeptical, but when we explain to them how our ownership group works and how Craig Leipold (majority owner of the Minnesota Wild) is not only one of the best owners in the NHL but all of sports and how we want to give back to the community and grow our fan base organically, they’ve been very receptive. When you look at the size and scope of this organization (20 full-time employees), it’s probably different than what people saw here in the past.”
Richard Huyck of Grimes agrees. The 47-year-old husband and father lives and breathes hockey. He plays twice weekly in an adult hockey league, and his teenage daughter plays for a team in the Des Moines Youth Hockey Association.
Over the years, he has attended several AHL and Des Moines Buccaneers games. This year, he decided to drop his season tickets to Iowa Hawkeye football that he has held since 1984 in lieu of season tickets for the Iowa Wild.
“I bought three tickets so I can take my daughter and my wife, or my daughter can bring a friend,” he said. “What I like about the Iowa Wild is they’re hockey guys. I don’t think the Chops owners were hockey guys. It shows in everything they do.”
Huyck said Des Moines’ hockey community is close-knit and that several of his friends have also bought season tickets.
“The kids and parents know each other, which is kind of neat, so it will be fun to see each other at the games,” he said. “All of my friends will be there, so we can hang out and drink a beer together.”
On the ice
Though team officials say that success on the ice might not affect attendance, it certainly can’t hurt it. Still, the organization’s priority is to prepare players for the next level.
“My expectations are that we don’t play the score, we play the game. It’s my job to teach them how to play the game right and to play hard,” said Iowa Wild Head Coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who played six season in the NHL and has coached professional and college teams since the 1990s. “I expect them to be professional and to be prepared to work hard and to get better. Everybody has to take ownership of their development.
“It’s very important that our players and our whole organization are in sync with the big club.”
In late September, the Iowa Wild’s roster began to take shape when the Minnesota Wild assigned 18 players to Des Moines. Among them were forward Chad Rau, who played for the Des Moines Buccaneers in 2004-05; 2011 first-round pick and forward Zack Phillips, who played in 71 AHL games last season; forwards Jake Dowell and Jason Zucker, both of whom spent some time playing for Minnesota last year; 2010 second-round draft pick and forward Brett Bulmer; and goaltender Johan Gustafsson, who played preseason for Minnesota.
“Fans can watch upcoming stars in our building before they get called up to Minnesota because they know how to develop players at the AHL level and play an exciting brand of hockey that will put butts in the seats,” Hockensmith said.
Frederickson said 87 percent of AHL players will play in the NHL, which makes it more entertaining for fans than most minor league sports.
“The quality of hockey is second to none in terms of the minor league compared to its major league counterpart,” he said.
Kleinendorst said it is important for the team to have players who have had NHL experience to help teach young players.
“You can have all the good young pros in the world, but if you don’t have veterans it gets in the way of development,” he said. “They understand the daily approach, the daily grind, while it takes some young kids time to figure it out. They can help set an example and let the younger players know that they are here for development first and to win. Once they develop their skills, winning takes care of itself.”
At age 24, defenseman and California native Jonathon Blum is one of the Iowa Wild’s veteran players with NHL experience. The 2007 NHL first-round draft pick has played for the Nashville Predators as well as other AHL teams since 2004.
“There’s a difference in the level of play between the two leagues. The players in the top two lines of every NHL team are so skilled and so smart that you only have to focus on your own job,” he said. “It’s every player’s goal to get to the NHL, and when you get called up it reminds you how hard you need to work on your game.”
Blum said a team’s work ethic can determine its success in the standings. He said he wants the Iowa Wild to be known around the league as a hard working unit.
“We want opposing teams to look at the schedule and know that when they play Iowa they’re playing a team that works hard and comes to play every day,” he said.
Kleinendorst said the team’s work ethic on and off the ice should resonate with Iowans.
“Once they see how hard we work and how committed we are to the community longterm and to the product on the ice, they will support us,” he said. CV