Love for hockey led Wolves owner down Hall of Fame path
When you want to size up a businessman, it's always good to know how he does business.
And veteran hockey man Gene Ubriaco is just the right person to provide insight into Chicago Wolves chairman Don Levin.
The 75-year-old Ubriaco has been with the Wolves from their startup in 1994, serving as the team's first head coach. He has done just about everything for Levin's club, and today he is senior adviser and director of hockey operations.
"I was there on Day 1, and I had a four-year contract," Ubriaco said. "Since the four-year contract, it's been a handshake, and that's it. It's always been a handshake."
Levin, who says he's in his 60s, has parlayed that philosophy into success on and off the ice with the Wolves, who are completing their 19th season in Rosemont.
Under Levin, the Wolves won two championships in the old International Hockey League as an independent minor-league team (although there is a lot of "major league" in the way Levin runs the team) and two in the American Hockey League as a former affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers.
The Wolves also have been a box-office success in a market with loads of sports and entertainment choices. They currently average 7,487 fans at Allstate Arena, but their top 10 crowds all time range from 18,412 to 16,607.
For that kind of track record, Levin will be inducted Sunday into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame along with former Wolves players Bob Nardella and the late Tim Breslin. The Hockey News also ranks Levin at No. 84 in its "Top 100 People of Power and Influence."
Whatever Levin and the Wolves are doing, it's working.
"I think it's good hockey," he said this week in the team's Glenview offices. "We've really focused on being family entertainment, not raising our prices a lot. Our entertainment is really family entertainment.
"It's supposed to be good hockey. It's supposed to be affordable hockey. It's supposed to be family entertainment."
A love for hockey
Levin grew up in Chicago and fell in love with hockey at an early age.
"My background in hockey goes back to when I was a little kid," he said. "I lived across the street from a park, and that was the sport I happened to like. I used to skate. Skate, I used to fall. But it was one of my favorite things to do."
Levin made his fortune in the tobacco processing, aircraft and medical equipment leasing and motion-picture production and distribution businesses. The Wolves were born out of his love for hockey and attending Blackhawks games with his friend Buddy Meyers, a former player agent who is Wolves vice chairman.
(The name "Wolves," Levin said, came about because his mother's maiden name was Wolf, or Wolfe, depending on whom you asked in the Wolf/Wolfe/Levin families.)
"We went to the games," Levin said. "At that time, the ticket price was $18.50. He (Meyers) knew everybody, and I got to know everybody in that section. Everybody was the same every year. There were no replay screens. It was a better way to learn the game. If you weren't paying attention to the game, you had to ask the guy next to you or the woman next to you to explain what happened.
"As time went on, two things happened: Prices went up, and you started losing the people who were there. Secondly, the replay screen went up, they started putting video up. There was less paying attention to the game."
With the help of former Blackhawks forward Grant Mulvey, who would serve as the Wolves' first GM, Levin got into hockey in 1993. He says the Wolves were to be a roller-hockey team until Mulvey found out the International Hockey League was open to putting a team in Rosemont.
"Our whole concept was to make it that same type of atmosphere, that family atmosphere we grew up with, if you will, with the Blackhawks," Levin said.
With money to spend, Levin and Mulvey put together a team for 1994-95 that featured former Blackhawks favorite Al Secord and 1992 U.S. Olympic goalie Ray LeBlanc. Wendell Young, the current Wolves GM, also has been with the team since its first year.
The Wolves proved popular from the start. Their ticket prices were "family-friendly" and the team played competitive hockey in the IHL, which was somewhat of a Wild West operation, with big-market and small-market teams, some of which were independent or loosely affiliated with NHL teams.
It turned out Mulvey overextended himself by trying to be coach and GM late in the 1995-96 season, and he was fired late the following season.
Levin turned to a Finn named Alpo Suhonen (who later would have an ill-fated run as Blackhawks coach) to replace Mulvey, but when Suhonen couldn't return for the 1997-98 season, Levin had to scramble.
To his good fortune, he and Ubriaco found a winning tandem in 27-year-old GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach John Anderson. Cheveldayoff was an assistant vice president for the IHL's Utah Grizzlies, and Anderson was a former NHL player who was a successful coach in the minors.
The two teamed up for a decade with the Wolves, leading them to those four titles.
"If you want my real opinion, Chevy might be the smartest hockey guy I ever met," Levin said of Cheveldayoff, who moved to the Blackhawks front office before taking his current job as GM of the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. "I can tell you, I've met some of these general managers. Some are very, very good. I can tell you that some of them are egotistic.
"There are some very, very smart people, and then there are some people who think they're very smart. When we hired Chevy, he was a kid. I didn't know how old he was. If you look at his past record, he had won in Salt Lake City. He was very smart and a very personable person.
"John Anderson comes. He had won some championships. Very, very nice person, a real players coach, a guy that played at a very high level and was a very, very successful hockey player but didn't come in thinking that he knew everything."
Although Levin is a hands-on owner, he lets his hockey people do the hockey work.
"He showed enough interest to learn about it, read about it," Ubriaco said. "That's what I admire him for. He can talk hockey and has a right to talk about it and say what he thinks. What a lot of organizations don't do, they have a lot of people, but they don't have a lot of different perspectives. I think that's really important. We've got a lot of different perspectives."
Future of Wolves, NHL dreams
Levin says he'd love to own an NHL franchise someday. But with NHL apparently in no mood to move existing franchises and no plans for expansion under way, Levin may not get that chance.
If that changes, Levin said he'd like to share the experience with his son, Robert, a goaltender for the South Shore Kings in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. The Seattle market has been mentioned as a possibility, and all eyes are still on a still-unsettled future for the NHL in Phoenix.
Levin was an early bidder for the Cubs when the Tribune Co. put them up for sale in 2007, but the Ricketts family won out.
"I got a phone call after the bid … and they said, 'You're not even in the same ZIP code,'" Levin said of his bid. "That was the end of my conversation."
Even if Levin were to get an NHL team, he said he would keep the Wolves. He also revealed he has some interesting plans going forward.
Levin liked the team's days in the IHL, when he and his hockey people had almost total control of their roster and weren't beholden to an NHL parent. The Wolves are currently an affiliate for the Vancouver Canucks.
"What I think we're trying to do is have a bit more control of who's going to be on our team," he said. "And I'm not knocking any of our players. We would like to have hired maybe the same players, but we want to have more control of who's on the ice and who is in charge of what. When you're dealing with an NHL team … it gets difficult. So we're trying to get a little more control. It will cost us more money. We're not going anywhere."
As far as his being someone who operates on a handshake, Levin says he doesn't like contracts and that it takes two hands to make a handshake.
"It's not so much what I am; it's what they are," he said of his employees. "I'm always cautious of people who want to have things too well defined. Life is fluid. You have to be able to roll with the punches and modify. A lot of people have been here from the beginning. You have good people and you work with them."
Asked if he were a demanding boss, he chuckled.
"All you have to do is win," he said. "It's not hard."
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