Time to get Wild!10/6/2021
Iowa Wild set to drop the puck on a new — and hopefully full — American Hockey League season.
There was absolutely nothing that could have prepared Iowa Wild Coach Tim Army for what transpired off the ice that, for all intents and purposes, melted his last two seasons.
That, of course, was COVID-19.
The virus first reared its ugly head in the spring of 2020, and, within weeks, the world was shut down. Swallowed up in the mix, unfortunately, was what had been the best season in Wild history.
The American Hockey League (AHL) Wild, a feeder club to its National Hockey League (NHL) parent team, the Minnesota Wild, had posted a 37-18-4-4 record in the 2019-20 campaign before things came to an abrupt halt.
The following season was truncated, too. The AHL season, which usually begins in October, was shut down until February of the following year. A total of 34 games were played, with the Wild posting a 17-13-4-0 mark, and narrowly missing the league’s revamped playoff system. One positive was the Wild closed out the year with a strong, 13-4-2 record in their final 19 games. But it still stung.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘frustrating,’ as it’s such a negative word,” Army said of the previous two seasons. “We were fast, physical, and a deep team that was equipped to have success in the playoffs. So we’re disappointed that neither team got the opportunity to pursue it. But it’s the reality of it, and we’ll build on what we’ve done in this coming season.”
Then and now
Prior to Army’s arrival, the Wild were in the midst of a five-year playoff drought. That changed in 2018-19 when Army was able to help steer the club to not only a post-season appearance, but a deep run into it as well. The Wild beat Milwaukee in a tight, five-game series before bowing out to Chicago in six games in the next round.
“That was a big step for us as a franchise,” Army said. “And although these last two teams didn’t get to play in the playoffs, we look at it as though we’ve made the playoffs three years in a row. It gives us a foundation and a springboard into the upcoming season.”
Army and the rest of the Wild enter the 2021-22 campaign at Wells Fargo Arena with high hopes. And even higher expectations.
One of the key components this year could be the play of exciting forward Matt Boldy, who played 18 games with the Wild last season and turned some heads in front offices in Minneapolis. Such is life in the minor leagues, where rosters change daily, depending on what the parent club needs.
“We may have Matt with us, or he may make the big Wild out of training camp,” Army said. “He’s looking really good right now.”
Calen Addison, Marco Rossi, Brandon Duhaime, Connor Dewar and Kyle Rau are also players who have opportunities to play in the NHL but may also see ice time in Des Moines.
“They’re really good hockey players,” Army said. “And players that our fans will really enjoy watching.”
A strong core of younger players, led by Damien Giroux, Adam Beckman, Mitchell Chaffee, Will Bitten, Mason Shaw and Joseph Cramarossa, who spent the last half of last year in the NHL, are prospects to watch as well.
“They’ve played some games already and are players who will continue to elevate, be very exciting for our fans to watch, and will be the future of the big Wild down the road,” Army said.
Iowa’s squad also has a number of players in the mix that add a veteran presence including Keaton Thompson and Turner Ottenbreit, who have been staples on the defensive side, as well as goalies Hunter Jones, Dereck Baribeau and Andrew Hammond. Minneapolis or not, the cupboard is far from bare.
Off the ice
Circle These Dates
Dec. 4-5: Winter Wonderland vs. Chicago
Dec. 31: New Year’s Day Game with postgame fireworks vs. Colorado
Jan. 14: Military Appreciation vs. Chicago
Jan. 15: Crash’s Birthday vs. Chicago
Jan. 28: Health and Wellness Night vs. San Diego
Jan. 29: Local Heroes Night vs. San Diego
Feb. 4: Special Olympics Night vs. Rockford
March 13: Teacher’s Appreciation Night vs. Henderson
April 22: Go Green Night vs. Texas
April 23: Fan Appreciation vs. Texas
For more information, call 515-564-8700 or visit www.iowawild.com.
Playing in what Army called “the best rink in the American Hockey League,” aka Wells Fargo Arena, has paid off in spades. And things got even better in the offseason.
“Getting new flooring installed in our gym may not seem like a lot, but it’s important, because the flooring that we’ve got has been there a long time,” Army said. “We’ve been approved by Minnesota to get some new flooring, which is really great for conditioning work in the gym. And we’re getting a new skate sharpener and heart monitors for all players, something we can use to track conditioning during practice.”
Off-season player development continues to be a bright spot for the organization, top to bottom.
“We were really proud last year that five of the starting 20 on the Minnesota roster had spent significant time in Des Moines playing for us,” Army said. “In addition to that, they (Wild) had a taxi squad, and we had a number of guys on it who had also spent a significant amount of time in Iowa.
“We’re trying to develop individuals, and the second step is that individual development sits inside a collective whole. If we do the first two things right, our guys will be ready to contribute to the big Wild when the opportunity presents itself. And we’re trying to win hockey games, so that contribution can help not only the big Wild, but us, too.”
Winning does not take a back seat in Army’s or the parent company’s grand scheme. Never has.
“Winning is important,” Army said. “If you want to win at the National Hockey League level, you need to win at the minor league level. To win, you’re not going to learn that on the fly in the NHL. The league is too good. You’ve got to develop that in the AHL.”
Speed kills. Or in this case, wins. And Army knows it.
“We want to play faster, smarter, and we want to play tougher,” he says. “We want to continue to be a really good five-on-five team, because when you get late into the season, and the players are getting tired but you’re playing games to make the playoffs, there aren’t as many penalties called, so you have to have success five on five. And the way we get there is by playing connected and playing fast.”
More than just a game
Ben Gislason, manager of media relations for the Iowa Wild, is chomping at the bit to get going as well. After two seasons of having their hands tied behind their backs, the media relations department is eager to get back to doing what they do best: excite fans. And that starts with something simple.
“One of the big things we’re really excited about this season is just being able to put out a promo schedule,” he said. “We didn’t really get to have one last season, because last year it was about getting the players on the ice, getting as many fans in the building as we can safely get in with social distancing, masks, etc.”
Gislason said that, although the club will remain diligent in keeping the fans safe in these unknown times, things are — at least for now — pointing in the right direction.
“The good news is that, from a fan perspective, we’re going to be able to operate closer to normal than we did last season,” he said.
On Monday nights, fans can enjoy the $1 hot dog special that lasts through the first period. On Tuesday night games, kids eat free, and Wednesday is “Winning Wednesday” night. Fridays feature $2 beer until the end of the first period and $3 Captain Morgan products throughout the entire game. On Saturdays, fans can get a jump on things before the puck drops via the two tallboy beers for $10 special.
But the thing Gislason is most excited about is the return of theme nights.
“We implemented a few of the nightly specials last year, but it was pretty much just all hockey, all the time, which we hockey fanatics love, but we want this to be an experience, too,” he said. “We want this to be not only an opportunity to check out some of the stars of tomorrow of the Na
tional Hockey League, but we want to make sure people enjoy their time here. There’s theatricality. It’s more than just buying a ticket, sitting down and watching 60 minutes of hockey.”
For safety reasons, the club wasn’t able to give promotional objects to fans for most of last season, but Gislason said that will return this year as well, beginning with the opener Oct. 22 in which all fans in attendance will be given an Iowa Wild schedule cup. The following night, Hoptoberfest, fans will have an opportunity to sample some local beer in an Octoberfest-style setting, Gislason added. A live band may be added to the mix as well, he said, giving it a carnival-like atmosphere inside the building.
Additional giveaway items include a team schedule poster (Oct. 23 vs. Rockford), Iowa Wild team pennant (Nov. 13 vs. Milwaukee), dog bandana (Nov. 14 vs. Milwaukee), limited edition team hat (Dec. 18 vs. Manitoba), Iowa Wild youth hockey jersey (Jan. 15 vs. Chicago), Iowa Wild themed puzzle (Jan. 28 vs. San Diego), bobblehead no. 1 (Jan. 29 vs. San Diego), pink LED foam sticks (Feb. 11 vs. Grand Rapids), bobblehead no. 2 (Feb. 25 vs. Rockford), Iowa Wild themed lunch box (March 13 vs. Henderson), dog leash (March 27 vs. Chicago), a Go Green giveaway item (April 22 vs. Texas) and player trading cards (April 23 vs. Texas).
On Throwback Night on Nov. 13, players will be donning special retro jerseys, in honor of hockey’s history in Des Moines. The jerseys will be up for auction following the game, and all in attendance will be receiving a team pennant.
“We’ll be stepping into a time machine and sending everyone back to the 1960s,” Gislason said. “It will be like the movie, ‘Slap Shot.’ We’ll have a band that can come in and play music from that era, and we’ll decorate the arena from that period. We just hope there won’t be as much fighting as there was in ‘Slap Shot.’ It’s going to be a great night.”
For those who feel the need to bring a furry friend, Pucks n Paws (Nov. 14 vs. Milwaukee and March 27 vs. Chicago) will return as well. The event has been a fan — and canine — favorite in past years.
“The gates will be open to any and all dogs,” he said. “We’ll have specific seating for those who want to stay away from the dogs, and, for those who want to be covered in dogs, we’ll make sure they get all the interaction they’d like. There will be some giveaway items as well, so you can dress your dog up in Wild gear that we’ll be handing out at the gates.”
On Pink In the Rink night (Feb. 11 vs. Grand Rapids), the team will be wearing specialty pink jerseys for cancer awareness that will be auctioned off after the game.
“It’s just a great charitable evening for everyone involved,” Gislason said. “It’s a wonderful evening and something that the hockey world has done all over North America to help raise money to help combat cancer. Everyone has been touched by cancer in some way, shape or form, and our players and organization always look forward to this one. It’s important to us, especially since we didn’t get to do it last year. It’s just so important for all of us to give back.”
And just one more thing
For the “Star Wars” fans out there, an extra-extra special night to have circled on the calendar is the March 25 home game against Rockford, in which Wild players will be wearing special “Star Wars” jerseys, Gislason said. There are some yet-to-be confirmed details in the works, but if things play out, this one could really be special.
“We’re going to have the music, some characters, and it’s going to be come-one-come-all for every age,” he said. “We all know how ‘Star Wars’ connects with not only some of the older people in our generations these days, but the youngest as well.”
The unique jerseys that will be worn during the game will be auctioned off after the game as well.
“It’s a chance for fans to help a great cause and to also get their hands on a limited, one-of-a-kind jersey,” Gislason said. “We may do an event like Pink In The Rink every year, but we always change up the jerseys.”
And on a pseudo-related note, Bobblehead (sort of rhymes with Boba Fett, right?) nights are back, too, this time on Jan. 29 and Feb. 25.
“We were very blessed to have 34 games last season, but we didn’t get to do things the way we wanted,” Gislason said. “It’s an experience to come to these games. We want people to have a connection with our players and also get to enjoy all these other things. We want our fans to have all of these things, and for it to be a raucous, carnival-like atmosphere each night. It’s a family-type environment, and we want everyone to feel like they’re part of something special.” ♦