How bad were things for the Chicago Wolves organization over the last few seasons?
So bad that at one point owner Don Levin wasn’t even comfortable walking into the locker after games — win or lose.
That’s right, the team owner.
“Two years ago I would never go in the dressing room. It was miserable, I didn’t like it,” Levin said. “Last year, I liked the guys ... but they were limited.”
Few had a better view of the deteriorating situation on the bench, the ice and in the room than longtime Wolves trainer Kevin Kacer.
“The last five years have been tough; it wasn’t really fun,” Kacer said. “It seemed like we had a different coach every year, every two years.”
Wendell Young, who was a player and an assistant coach before becoming general manager of the Wolves, also felt the pain.
“It was tough; there were a number of coaches come through and it’s tough to make people realize how the Chicago Wolves operate,” Young said.
Levin knew the situation couldn’t continue. Something had to change ... and soon.
And that something was the man behind the bench. Levin knew he needed to be able to select his own coach, but the problem was that Vancouver, the Wolves’ NHL affiliate the last few years, along with most other NHL teams courting the then free-agent organization, demanded they handpick their own AHL coaches.
“Vancouver would’ve been happy to stay, but I was like ‘I have to pick my coach,’” Levin said. “That was a deal-breaker.
“When we became available, a lot of teams contacted us. We said we’ll talk to anybody but the only issue is we get to pick our coaches. That cut our list down and only St. Louis, as far as someone we felt comfortable with, was on board.”
Shortly after the Blues and the Wolves agreed on a three-year partnership, the rumors began: John Anderson — winner of 4 championships in an 11-year run with the Wolves — might be returning after a five-year absence.
“When I heard they were talking to Johnny and that he might be coming back, I was like ‘Oh my God, it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s going to get really fun again,’” Kacer said. “Johnny loves the Wolves. He wants to be here.”
And before you could say Calder Cup, Anderson was signed, sealed and delivered to the Wolves, who celebrate the home opener of their 20th season Saturday night against San Antonio (7 p.m. on U-Too).
“I was thrilled,” Levin said of the signing. “It was right to have him back.”
Levin wasn’t alone in his glee over Anderson’s return.
“It’s like we’re getting the band back together,” Kacer said. “It’s like the family is together again.”
“There’s one main constant in all our championships, and that’s Johnny Anderson,” Young said. “It’s nice that he’s back for a number of reasons, but his demeanor is probably the biggest thing.
“Guys like coming to the rink to practice. It’s evident when you talk to players who have played here over the years. One of the first things you hear is ‘say hi to Johnny.’ That says something because usually players do not talk well about coaches.”
If the reaction of the fans is any indication, the buzz about Anderson is through the roof.
“We had a season-ticket holders party and as soon as I introduced Johnny there was a line halfway down the rink that lasted all night — people that wanted to talk to him or get his autograph,” Young said, shaking his head. “That’s what he brings to the table.
“I’ve never had more positive feedback. Never mind the players we’ve signed; Johnny Anderson is the biggest signing, the biggest thing that’s happened to the Chicago Wolves in the past 5, 6 years.
“I told the other coaches, I go ‘Boys, it’s like the Beatles. He’s (Paul) McCartney out front and we’re Ringo Starr on the drums.’”
So, Johnny, how does it feel to be a rock star?
“Everyone wants to spend 5 minutes with the coach because they want to put their 2 cents in,” Anderson said in his usual low-key manner. “But really, it’s awesome. I still feel like I never left. I can’t believe it’s been five years.
“But I’m back and it’s been fun so far. And it’ll be more fun if we win.”
That desire to win the Calder Cup, along with a family-first credo, has been one of the staples of the organization since its inception. But things go so bad that even the upbeat Levin wasn’t expecting to win another title.
“No, last year and a few years ago it wasn’t (an expectation),” Levin said. “I wanted to win the Cup but I remember looking at the team and saying ‘we’re not going anywhere this year.’ There was no surprise there.”
While the Wolves suffered in his absence, Anderson wasn’t having a blast in his NHL head-coaching gig in Atlanta, a job that was followed as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes.
“It was topsy-turvy,” Anderson said of his time away. “It was very difficult in Atlanta because we were trying to run things on a shoestring budget.
“It was really good in Phoenix except that we didn’t have ownership. We went to the Stanley Cup semifinals, so that was a great thing.
“I loved living in Atlanta and I loved living in Phoenix, but Chicago’s my home. I always kept my house here.”
Besides all the upbeat feelings, the return of Anderson comes with a return of pressure — on him and the organization — to regain that championship form.
“Everyone says ‘Oh Johnny’s back, we’re going to win a championship,’” Kacer said. “And I think we will. We’re going to be really good this year. We’re going to be fun to watch.
“I really think it’s a lot of pressure on Johnny. Just because he’s back, it’s not a given that we’re going to win the Calder Cup. We’re going to give it a great effort and we have the pieces it takes to do it, but is it a given that we’re going to win the Calder Cup? Heck no.”
But with what looks like a solid group of players and with their new partnership with the Blues, things are looking up again for the Wolves.
“We’re going to have guys that aren’t playing in the lineup that should be playing,” Young said. “We’re deep.”
And now they have Anderson, who welcomes the pressure that with the job.
“I believe in myself, but I know one thing — I can’t take any shifts,” Anderson said. “It’s up to the players. They’re the guys who have to go put their butts on the line.”
Young knows his coach will as well.
“I guarantee every game this year we’re playing to win, not playing not to lose,” Young said. “It’s back.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.