One of the biggest joys of seeing Des Moines grow and improve during the past decade or so is the fact that we now live in a town that features professional sports year-round. Between the Iowa Barnstormers, Iowa Cubs and Iowa Energy, winter, spring and summer are all well stocked with pro talent to enjoy. And this fall (this week, to be exact), the Iowa Wild take to the ice for a third season as Des Moines’ American Hockey League (AHL) representative.
The first two seasons of Wild hockey have been — speaking charitably — rough. The team finished 27-36-7-6 in its inaugural season then took a step backward last year, finishing 23-49-2-2. Even so, there are still some reasons to hope entering the 2015-16 campaign.
The fan experience
Maybe the biggest thing the Iowa Wild organization has going for it is its own backyard. Des Moines is a market that has been starved for professional hockey, and fans have turned out in numbers the past two seasons despite the less-than-stellar results. It is something that the Wild front office is well aware of, and that fan relationship has been something that they have cultivated successfully. Despite two straight last-place finishes, attendance numbers have been consistently strong, and last year the team won the AHL’s award for Best Fan Experience. From concourse games and activities to entertainment on the ice between periods, the organization has done its best to create an atmosphere of family-friendly entertainment — and the crowds have responded. But, as Team President Todd Frederickson pointed out, the fan experience is a two-way street.
“You don’t win the fan experience award without having great fans,” he said. “You look at attendance on a weekend in Des Moines, where we’ll have 8,000 or 10,000 fans here, and the Des Moines Buccaneers will have 2,500 fans watching them. That’s 12,000 people watching hockey in Des Moines. It’s that passion and energy from our fans that makes it successful.”
Frederickson is also aware that while the team works to improve its product on the ice, having a good product off it can make all the difference in bringing people to the arena.
“We really focus on the arena entertainment, making sure that fans are having a good time, regardless of the result on the ice,” he said. “New this year, we have ‘Free Parking Mondays.’ We also have ‘Kids Eat Free Tuesday,’ ‘Winning Wednesdays,’ where if we win fans will receive free tickets to another Iowa Wild game; and $2 Beer Nights on Fridays. Every single night there’s a promotion or theme that’s attracting audiences.”
The front office understands that AHL hockey has failed in the city before and learned some fundamental lessons for long-term success by studying the past failures. The organization understands that being successful here means being an active part of the city’s culture.
“Community involvement is foremost in our minds,” Frederickson said. “Des Moines is such a community-based market. We’ve partnered with as many local nonprofits as we can, because we consider it a part of our civic responsibility to give back.”
For the casual hockey fan, people new to the sport or families looking for a fun night out, concourse games and promotional giveaways will be a meaningful part of the experience. However, for Iowa’s more hardcore fans, the on-ice results are always going to be the thing that matters most.
“Really, for the first two years, they weren’t even competitive,” said Des Moines resident Walt Lehmann. “I think a great goal for this year would be to make the playoffs. In hockey especially, when you look at the playoff brackets for the AHL, half the teams make the first round. So making the playoffs would show that you have made enough improvement to at least be putting a competitive team on the ice every night.”
“A winning record would be awesome,” concurred Chad Willey, who runs the Iowa Wild Nation Facebook page. “But just getting a playoff spot would be downright amazing.”
Most all of the fans interviewed for this piece thought the personnel changes were promising, and nobody was ready to pencil this team in for another 40 losses. Confidence in Coach Torchetti, in particular, seemed high, and virtually everyone felt like the playoffs were more than just a pipe dream.
And while most ardent hockey fans didn’t put a huge personal emphasis on the fan experience promotions, they were all quick to acknowledge the role promotions and special events had in fostering the game inside the greater Des Moines community.
“I think the hardcore hockey fans don’t pay a lot of attention to it,” Lehmann said. “But all of those promotions serve to bring in people who maybe aren’t as familiar with the game. If (the Wild) are going to be successful, it will be by bringing in new fans, educating them on the game and keeping them interested in coming back and seeing more.”
“I’ve said it from the beginning, the Hero of the Game was the classiest and coolest thing I’ve seen,” added Willey, referring to the game break where the Iowa Wild honors a local military veteran. “I like what they have been doing for promotions with this team. They are always somewhere getting team exposure. Two of my favorite promotions last year were the rally towels and the youth jerseys. My nieces and nephew love them.
“Of course, the price of beer could be cheaper.”
A change at the top
In last year’s dismal showing, nearly a quarter of the team’s 49 losses came in the first 12 games of the season under coach Kurt Kleinendorst. Kleinendorst — who came to Iowa by way of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he posted a 3-21-1 head coaching record — was the first coach in the team’s history in Iowa, but after the dismal results in year one, a 2-10 start last season doomed him. Replacement John Torchetti was announced on Nov. 12 of last year, and the team went 21-39 the rest of the way.
For 2015-16, Torchetti is back. He has a level of familiarity with the front office that goes beyond this year, as Torchetti also coached the organization in 2011, when it was the Houston Aeros. Now he’s in Des Moines with three-quarters of a year experience from last year and a chance to make a fresh beginning.
“I think, for the guys coming back from last year, it’s a little bit easier for them (this year),” he said, talking about plugging Wild players into his gameplan. “They’re not as nervous. They know what they have to do. They know the work they have to put into these systems.”
The Wild have a bunch of new faces across all three lines this season, but as Torchetti knows, it’s much easier to implement a game plan on day one than it is trying to pick up someone else’s pieces in the middle of a season.
“It’s a little different here as opposed to an independent league, because these are the players that are here, and you don’t just move contracts around,” Torchetti said of jumping in 12 games into last season. “But you know there’s a reason why the team is losing, so number one is trying to build confidence. If it’s not a team that is strong enough to be a top 10 team, make them understand that they have to work. Even if they make a mistake, as long as they’re working, it’s fine. The guys that did buy in (last year), that’s why they’re back here.”
Torchetti likes what he has seen from his squad in the early days of camp, and he definitely feels like this is a team that can put competitive lines on the ice every night.
“Last year, I took over, and they weren’t winning. Then we were 13-13-3, and we had our goalie called up (to parent franchise Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League), and our best defenseman called up, and our best forward called up. We didn’t recover from that.”
There is, of course, no guarantee that the same thing will not happen this season. Part of being a feeder franchise is that the needs of the club in Minnesota outstrip the needs of Des Moines. So if an NHL defender or goalie or winger goes down, Des Moines could easily find itself missing its best players once again.
But for the start of this season, anyway, the Iowa Wild look ready. The team returns 15 players from last year’s squad, Minnesota has restocked the team with a slew of young, developing talent, and a number of AHL veterans have been signed to fill in gaps and provide leadership.
Several of the new faces have the potential to contribute right away, including goalie Adam Morrison (15-6-4, 2.01 goals against average last season) and left winger Matt Carey (10 goals, 11 assists). But one of the focal points, both in the locker room and on the ice, figures to be defenseman Maxime Fortunus.
Fortunus is a puck-moving defender with the ability to help sneak a shot past the goalie when called upon (he tied his AHL high with 34 points last season). He is also a guy who brings a lot of experience and leadership to a very young Iowa team. Fortunus is a veteran of more than 800 professional games, including nearly 700 in the AHL. He spent the past six seasons with the Texas Stars, where he played for the Calder Cup three times, winning in 2014. He is also a perennial favorite among teammates, having served as the Texas captain.
“It’s an honor,” Fortunus said of being voted team captain. “I try to bring leadership to a team, whether I’ve got the letter or not. That’s what I try to instill in everyone. I think that’s what makes great locker rooms, being able to look at your teammate and say, ‘He’s doing things the right way.’ When you have a locker room that’s tight, good things happen.”
At the end of last year, after six seasons in the Dallas Stars’ organization, the team announced that they would not re-sign Fortunus, making him a free agent. He briefly considered playing in Europe but was quickly offered the chance to come to Des Moines. He did not have to think long, nor did he hesitate in committing to the team. Fortunus has already bought a house in town, and his wife and three children are settling in as Iowans.
“I’ve met a lot of guys who spent some time playing here,” he said. “They all told me that the city was unbelievable. When we got the opportunity to sign here, I was really happy. That’s what I told my wife, ‘We’re going to be really happy here.’ ”
Fortunus likes what he has seen from the team in practice and feels like everyone is starting the season on the same page.
“I think the first thing is to get everybody down with all the systems,” he said of getting a team to gel. “Get the mentality down that we’re here to work, and that’s the only way things are going to change. Just crank it out, and put in the work.”
And while Fortunus, at 32, may be the second-oldest player on the roster, he makes no bones about why he is here and what his goals are for the coming season.
“When I signed I made it clear to the front office that I was happy coming in as a kind of leader, but I don’t want to be just the mentor,” he said. “I’m here because I can play, and because I want to win.”
The backline is where most of the personnel changes will be seen, with all of the team’s goalies and six of 11 defenders being new to the club. Meanwhile, on the offensive side, the Wild brings back 10 players from last year’s team, including winger Olivier Archambault and forward Grayson Downing, who combined for 87 points last season, including 45 goals. But if there is any one returning player who best typifies what it means to be part of the Iowa Wild, it is forward Marc Hagel.
The 27-year-old Ontario native received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton, where he played three years of hockey, missing a season due to injury. From there, he moved on to the University of Miami (Ohio) where he played his last year of college hockey and picked up a master’s degree along the way. Left undrafted after his college career was finished, Hagel played his way onto a club through a tryout, seeing six games of action with Lake Erie. The next season he was signed to play in South Carolina, where he spent 20 games before being called up to Iowa.
“I played the last two seasons here on minor league, one-way contracts,” Hagel explained. “Then this year, I signed a two-year, two-way deal.”
The difference between a one-way or two-way contract is small but important. In a one-way deal, a player is paid the same amount, regardless of where he plays. In a two-way deal, the salary will go up or down, depending on the league the player is in. The underlying significance is that two-way contracts are generally given to players the NHL clubs think have the best chance of spending meaningful time in the league.
So, in four short years, Hagel has grown from an undrafted college grad into a player with the potential to make an impact on the Minnesota club, and most of that maturation and growth came here in Iowa in front of Wild fans. During that time, Hagel has seen this club grow and change, and he feels like this squad is in a good position to move up the ladder.
“When I first got here, guys like (Brady) Brassart and (Zach) Mitchell were coming in here on amateur tryouts,” Hagel said. “This will be their second full season in the AHL now, and those guys have grown as players and have turned into awesome guys. They’re going to be a big part of the team this year. Now we’ve got Torch (Torchetti) behind the bench, and we feel a lot better about things, that’s for sure.”
Game on. CV