Wolves happy for Blackhawks, but want own title

There was a time not that long ago when the Chicago Wolves could embarrass their NHL counterpart by simply dropping the puck.

They developed players, got positive press, sold more tickets, were inherently fan-friendly and won championships.

Well, the last two weren’t really a contest. The Blackhawks didn’t try to win and did everything they could to alienate the fan base, while the Wolves actually televised hockey games.

What a concept.

But now the Wolves haven’t won a title since 2008 and the Hawks have been resurrected and brought home two Stanley Cups.

The lack of banners is the reason why the Wolves have put the band back together and brought back John Anderson as the head coach.

“That’s exactly it,” said general manager Wendell Young. “Some teams have different levels of expectation. Some teams sit back with all young players and just develop. Some are put together just to make playoffs. It’s the same as in the NHL, where some teams are just trying to survive and some teams are trying to win every year.

“We don’t feel like it’s a successful year unless we win the last game of the year. We expect to win the Calder Cup every year.”

But that doesn’t translate into a competition with the Hawks. On the contrary, owner Don Levin has always said that the more the Hawks achieve, the better it is for the Wolves.

“Our attendance has gone up as the Hawks have been more successful,” Young said. “People want to see hockey and they come see us when everyone is talking about hockey, and these days everyone in Chicago is talking about hockey. The better the hockey town, the better it is for us.

“The more tickets they sell, the more people need another place to watch hockey. Their success benefits us. Even in the years we were outdrawing the Hawks on the weekend, we always said it was our hope that the Hawks would be successful.

“And we have a great relationship with the Hawks. A lot of our staff has gone there and we’re very proud of that.”

After winning four titles in Rosemont, Anderson has gone from the Wolves to being a head coach in the NHL and then an assistant, but it’s such a good fit for him here that he left a job on the Coyotes’ coaching staff to rejoin Chicago in the AHL.

“A huge part of it is quality of life,” said the 56-year-old Anderson. “The NHL life is awesome, but my family is here, my friends are here, and returning to the Wolves is like being back with your family.

“At some stage in your life, it’s not just about money and accolades. This is home and this is a chance to win right away. I’m really excited to be back and it feels so good. Of course, that’s easy to say until you lose two or three in a row. You’re only as good as your last game. Doesn’t matter what league you’re in.”

After a long affiliation with Atlanta, the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg and subsequent switch of their farm club to St. John’s left the Wolves and Vancouver together for two years.

The Canucks then bought Peoria, making the St. Louis Blues and Wolves a natural fit, but Young said he talked to several NHL teams and let them know that the first order of business was hiring Anderson as the next head coach.

“We buckled on the coaching hire with Vancouver, but we’ve always had our own coach and when Vancouver was done, we said, ‘Here’s the rules.’ When teams called, we said we’re going to hire our own coach and that scared some teams away,” Young said. “Before we got far with St. Louis, we told them our priority was Johnny. They were all for it and they agreed.

“I called (Phoenix GM) Don Maloney and asked for permission, and we owe Don much appreciation for granting us that permission. There was no coaching search, per se. We said that was our priority, and we were lucky that the Peoria coaches were elated.”

Dave Allison was already the head coach of the Blues’ AHL team and Scott Allen an assistant, creating what could have been an awkward situation. Instead, both men said they would remain as assistants.

“They said they were going to the best organization in the AHL and they were all for it,” Young said. “I’ve known Davey a long time and have a good rapport with him, and when I spoke to him about it he said he was in and it was like going to the New York Yankees of the American Hockey League.

“Davey is a great guy and great coach and he fits right in here. Besides, we have no pecking order here. Everyone is a big part of this and our meetings so far have been terrific.”

It takes a special individual to accept this situation, and Anderson knows it.

“The first thing Davey said to me was, ‘So how do you feel about having to take us on?’ We laughed about it,” Anderson said. “I’m very fortunate to have him here. I will be relying on him and Scott a lot.

“During the lockout last year, I scouted lot of AHL teams, so I have a good feel, but I don’t know the players personally like they do, so that’s a huge advantage.”

The feeling around the Wolves has already changed. With Anderson back, the Wolves are talking Calder Cup again, and the rivalry between the Blues and the Hawks at the AHL level figures to be bigger than ever.

Tickets are selling and excitement is high in the wake of the affiliation switch and a familiar name back behind the bench who has brought the organization four titles.

“Developing players for the NHL club is a huge part of this, but a team like St. Louis also recognizes that the players they send us are coming here to be treated first class, too,” Young said. “We tell the guys here that they’re coming here to win, and there’s no better way to develop players than to win.

“They had their own franchise all those years and all that responsibility and now they can just hand us kids and we’ll develop their young guys. St. Louis is very happy about it and they talked about never having this kind of depth before.

“A lot of great things have come together here. It’s gonna be a fun year with Johnny back and we just can’t wait to get started. That’s the question everyone keeps asking. When do we get started?”

With the hiring of Anderson, they already did.

ŸListen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score’s “Hit and Run” show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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