It’s a Wild Thing10/5/2016
To: Our competitors in the American Hockey League
From: The Iowa Wild
Just to let you know, there’s a new sheriff on our bench who knows one thing and one thing only — winning. You know, that thing you’ve done against us here at Wells Fargo Arena in the past, way too often, much to the chagrin of Wild faithful from the front office to fans in the seats. But we get it. After all, that’s why you were here — to win.
There’s an old adage that says, “To the victor go the spoils.” Well, if that’s true, we’ve spoiled you. Sure, we revel in the role of playing “Iowa nice,” but as another old adage goes, “All good things must come to an end.”
And this is the end of your winning and our losing.
So please, continue to overlook us, think of us in terms of what we’ve done in the past instead of where we are now, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may as we head into the 2016-17 season.
If things play out the way we’d like them to, we’ll be seeing you on the way up.
Let’s drop the puck.
The Iowa Wild
OK, so the above memo isn’t real. But if new Iowa Wild head coach Derek Lalonde had his way, this would be the bulletin board material that begins his tenure here in Des Moines. One part greeting, one part warning, the note would be a hopeful indicator of things to come as the Wild work toward the Oct. 14 opener for the 2016-17 season.
But saying something is one thing — backing it up is another. And history is against Lalonde.
The Wild franchise, now with three full seasons under its collective helmet, has posted win counts of 27, 23 and 24 in its short history in the capitol city. Turning things around won’t be an easy task. Everyone knows it, including Todd Frederickson, the team’s president.
Frederickson, now in his fourth season at the front office helm, is banking that the 2016-17 will be the one in which the club finally turns the corner.
Hiring Lalonde was the first step, he said.
“He’s had a tremendous track record with his previous franchises and what he’s done at Toledo the past two seasons,” Frederickson said of Lalonde. “He brings a player-first attitude with him, which I think is terrific. He’s a coach that likes to win.”
The new coach
Lalonde, 43, spent the last two seasons as the head coach of the East Coast Hockey League’s Toledo Walleye. The team posted a 97-35-7-5 (wins, losses, overtime or shootout losses, ties) record with back-to-back playoff appearances. The Walleye went 47-20-2-3 last season, finishing with the ECHL’s Eastern Conference regular season title. Lalonde led Toledo to a 50-15-5-2 record in 2014-15 and was named ECHL Coach of the Year after helping the team make a 58-point improvement from the previous season, the largest in ECHL history.
Prior to coaching in the ECHL, Lalonde spent three years behind the bench of the United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers. In the 2011-12 season, he led the team to a 47-9-2-2 overall record and a Clark Cup and was named the USHL Coach of the Year. In his three seasons in Green Bay, the Gamblers posted a mark of 114-56-8-6.
In other words, Lalonde is no stranger to success.
“I want to win,” Lalonde said from his office on a Friday morning. “I know my priority here is development, but I want to win. I think winning is development, too. I’ve been around cultures of winning, and expectations of winning, and I want that same thing here.”
Working from the ground up is something that Lalonde is familiar with. In Toledo, he inherited a last-place team that was in dire need of a jumpstart. Two years later, his club had posted 97 wins.
“I came into that environment and everyone was asking, ‘What are your goals?’ ‘How many wins?’ We never approached it like that,” he said. “We will work in five-game segments and judge ourselves every five games. I find that very healthy. If we work on our process, talk about getting better every day, work in our segments, I’m hoping those numbers will take care of themselves here, too.”
A fine balance
Players had yet to report at the time of this interview, and both Lalonde and Frederickson agreed that it was too early to determine who would play what role on this year’s team.
Free agency moves in the off-season by the Wild’s parent team, the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild, excited Lalonde, who has been chomping at the bit to get on the ice since he took over on July 1.
“It’s always interesting getting a new team. I’m excited that we made some moves at the beginning of free agency,” he said. “Max Fortunus is someone I’m excited about, and we signed Victor Bartley. He has experience at the AHL level, but he’s a guy pushing for the NHL, too. We signed Pat Cannone. Alex Stalock (goaltender) — all he’s known for the last four to five years is the NHL, and he wants to get back there, but he wants to do it through the right culture, and that’s here.
“Alex Tuch, (Jordan) Schroeder, (Grayson) Downing, and (Zack) Mitchell have a shot at getting up there, but if not, I want them to battle to get back up there. I think the right energy and direction with those guys will help the big picture.”
Mitchell led the team in scoring last season with 42 points on 22 goals and 20 assists. Downing followed with 19 goals and 21 assists for 40 points, and Schroeder played just 40 games but finished with 34 points, including 14 goals. All-star defenseman Gustav Olofsson also returns to the fold for the Wild.
Building a new culture
Being the head coach of a development program for a parent club can be a tricky situation in itself. If a player gets hot, or the parent club needs to fill a hole due to an injury, it may draw from its feeder club. Lalonde said he recognizes the situation but chooses to embrace it rather than run from it.
As long as a player is under his wing — for however long or short of a period of time that may be, he said — the player will be held accountable to blend in as a member of the team.
“I’ve lived the balance of development and trying to win my entire life,” he said. “We are a development league to move players on to big-time hockey. I want kids that want to move on. When guys are down here, they’ll be held accountable on our standards and they’ll play for the teammates with them, but they better be working to move on in their career. That’s the only way to do it. If guys are content, or they don’t have that drive to get better and keep moving on, that’s when you run into problems. What I’m going to try to instill here is a culture of accountability, a culture of winning, a culture where guys come to the rink excited.”
Lalonde said the team’s front office has given him the pieces of the puzzle to be successful, and now it’s his job to put it together and make it happen. If it doesn’t, the results will not only show up in the win/loss column, but also in the stands.
“Management has done a good job. I think they’re frustrated on the lack of success we’ve had here, and they went out and got some scoring. Personnel is heading in the right direction,” he said. “I think it’s just human nature that when you lose you just get into that rut and have an expectation of losing.
“We want to win some hockey games. You’re always teetering on that fence of a good product where it’s fun to come to the rink, but people will get frustrated if we continue down that same losing path we are.”
Joseph Shearer has been a season ticket holder since the second season and has family members who have done so since the inaugural campaign. Despite growing up in the decidedly non-hotbed of hockey — Woodward — he’s been a fan of the sport for many years.
“I’ve liked hockey ever since playing floor hockey in gym class in first and second grade,” he said.
Lack of numbers in the win column haven’t deterred him from attending Wild games, and Shearer said that even though the losses have mounted through the years, not everything is doom and gloom. There’s more at stake than just what happens on the ice on a nightly basis in Des Moines.
“They may not win every night, but they’ve developed a lot of good talent over the last few years that have gone on to play big parts in some playoff runs for Minnesota,” he said. “I think that with the coaching moves and with the inbound prospects, the team is moving in the right direction. Player development is top notch. It’s great to see someone play here and the next game earn a spot on a top line in Minnesota.”
From a fan standpoint, there are very few complaints — if any — from Shearer.
“The experience is great,” he said. “Music selection is good, and the intermission games and shows are fun. A group in my section even has fun gambling on some of the games during TV timeouts.”
That’s not to say that the on-ice action isn’t a focus of their attention. It is, as is virtually everything that goes on during a game, before or after the whistle.
Last season, Wild goaltender Steve Michalek, in his first game since being called up, went toe to toe with Charlotte Checkers’ netminder Daniel Altshuller in a rare goalie fight, which drew national attention.
Shearer was there to see it and made it a point to go to an Iowa Wild appearance at Scheels a few weeks later with several other friends to see Michalek. But instead of handing him a standard puck to sign, he produced something better.
“I had pucks for all the players to sign except for Steve. I handed him a photo of his fight, and he got excited,” he said. “I don’t think he knew how much we all enjoyed watching that fight. He was even gracious enough to go into a fight pose for a photo with me.”
It’s memories like these that keep Shearer coming back.
“Win or lose, it’s always fun at hockey,” he said. “Section 122 has turned into a big hockey family with reunions every few nights.”
Off the ice
While the on-ice performance hasn’t been cause for much celebration, the fan experience has. The club has been recognized as one of best — if not the best — in the AHL.
Frederickson said the team works hard at creating promotions that would be attractive to any fan in Des Moines or otherwise.
“With the player movement and injuries, you can’t always control what’s going on the ice at all times, but what we can control is what happens in the arena,” he said. “We’re trying on a nightly basis to have promotions that our fans have grown accustomed to.”
The team had its most successful game in terms of attendance last year when more than 12,000 fans turned out for a Jan. 16 game, which featured country singer CAM performing afterward.
Frederickson said a series of concerts is being planned for the upcoming season, this time up to three shows, likely in the second half of the year.
Other popular promotions that will continue this season include free parking on Mondays, a kids-eat-free promotion for children ages 12 and younger on Tuesdays, and Pink in the Rink on Feb. 11. (See sidebar for full schedule.)
The team is introducing some new twists as well, beginning with the Winning Wednesday promotions, when fans can get two tallboys for $10. If the Wild win the game, all fans in attendance will get an equal number of tickets for the next Wednesday game. At 3 p.m. on Dec. 31, the Wild will host the Chicago Wolves, and afterward there will be a postgame fireworks show on ice. For more information on promotions, tickets and all things Iowa Wild, visit www.iowawild.com.
Frederickson said the team will continue its tradition of maintaining a strong community presence as well. Last year, the team mascot, Crash, made 200 appearances at various events in central Iowa.
“We think, as a professional sports organization, that we’re in the unique position of being able to give back,” he said. “We feel like it’s our civic responsibility to do that, not in terms of appearances, but helping raise money for various non-profits around Des Moines. It’s a source of pride for our organization.”
The rest is up to Lalonde and the team.
“I have a formula that has worked for me my entire life,” Lalonde said. “The team-first approach is important here, but it’s human nature to be individualistic. We play for each other, which is an over-used cliché. It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of work to get there. But that will be my goal, to establish that culture.”♦
|2016-17 Iowa Wild Game Schedule (all times CST)