By Sara Romano
Wolves’ season-ticket holder Grace Garritano can remember the first game she and her husband Rob ever attended.
It was Game 7 of the 1998 Turner Cup championship series.
The couple was up in the “triple-upper nosebleed seats” of a sold-out Allstate Arena.
And the Wolves defeated the Detroit Vipers to clinch the IHL league championship.
The Garritanos were hooked.
“It was a phenomenal game,” Grace said. “It was standing room only. It was affordable, and it was fun. The only reason we didn’t get season tickets immediately was because we both worked.”
Touting affordable tickets and winning hockey, the Wolves, who joined the American Hockey League in 2001 when the IHL folded, have consistently ranked among the top three of the 30-team AHL in attendance since the mid-2000s.
“The year we were launched was almost the perfect year,” said Mike Gordon, Wolves’ president of business operations. “We were able to come in and be something new and different.
“Our owner [Don Levin] wanted to bring affordable hockey to Chicago and that’s what he did. That was the dream and passion of what he wanted this team to represent in Chicago.”
The Wolves’ inaugural season of 1994-’95 coincided with the NHL lockout that caused the cancellation of the season. And the timing was an undeniable advantage.
“We would never wish an [NHL] labor stoppage, it’s not good for the sport,” Gordon said. “That being said, in business you have to be positioned to take advantage of any situation that presents itself. We were ready. We were set. We knew what we were going to do.”
With the Blackhawks struggling on the ice and in the midst of a 10-year skid in which they missed the playoffs nine times, frustrated Hawks fans were eager to embrace the new team. The Wolves were the perfect alternative for the Garritanos, who said they had enough of Hawks’ chairman Bill Wirtz’s ownership style.
“When they got rid of [Jeremy] Roenick, I said I am never going to watch the Hawks again,” Grace said. “There was so much emphasis on the owner making money not on putting a good team on the ice.”
Jim and Lorraine Smalley, Wolves’ season-ticket holders since that first year, expressed similar sentiments.
“We were going to a lot of Hawks games, but they had out-priced themselves for us,” Jim said. “So when the Wolves started, a buddy and I said ‘We’ve got to get season tickets.’ They have that affordability of being able to get season tickets and come see good hockey.”
Though prices have certainly increased for both teams since the 1990s, the Wolves remain the more affordable option for the Chicago hockey fan. A 2014-‘15 Wolves’ season ticket starts at $380, while one premium ticket through StubHub for a single Blackhawks game could cost at least that much.
The Wolves have consistently paired that affordability with a quality product on the ice. The team has never had a losing season in franchise history, a fact on which general manager Wendell Young prides himself.
“[It] is absolutely incredible, because a lot of times things are out of your control with injuries and call-ups and sometimes the parent team doesn’t have a good draft and you don’t have good prospects coming in,” he said. “To have a winning season every year, that’s the pride of the organization.”
“Everything in our organization—on the hockey side, our marketing, our tickets, our PR and our game presentation—is off the charts.”
– Wendell Young, Wolves General Manager
That on-ice success certainly translates to success at the box office, according to Gordon.
“People come into this arena expecting good, competitive, quality hockey,” he said. “The fact that we’ve never had a losing record means we are able to provide that on any given night. I think that if the product on the ice changed, yes it would definitely have an effect on [attendance].”
Although hockey is undoubtedly the focal point of the team’s marketing efforts, it is not the only selling point. The Wolves’ game presentation and game operations are unparalleled in the AHL, and even in the NHL, according to Young.
“Everything in our organization—on the hockey side, our marketing, our tickets, our PR and our game presentation—is off the charts,” he said. “We’ve got great entertainment for the dollar. To have a winning team and bring that kind of entertainment every night, it’s pretty amazing what we do.”
“Part of the beauty of our product is we can be different things to different people,” Gordon said. “You and I can come to a game and have completely different experiences.”
The Wolves cater to both the “hockey nut” and the typical family outing, Gordon elaborated.
“To have a winning season every year, that’s the pride of the organization.”
– Wendell Young, Wolves General Manager
“At the end of the day, [everyone] can walk away feeling you got your money’s worth, which is what you want and why you come back,” he said.
Chris Nikolis, executive vice president of marketing and business development of the AHL, pointed to the Wolves as a model franchise in the league.
“They are very well-run. They commit resources in terms of staff and technology. They are geared at delivering a great product and bringing fans to the building,” Nikolis said. “It’s been that way since they joined the league, and it remains that way today.”
The Wolves rank second in the league in attendance with an average of 8,236 fans per game, including eight games with crowds of more than 10,000, compared to the AHL average of approximately 5,500 per game.
With the AHL continuing to see overall gains in attendance throughout the league, the Wolves set the standard for the AHL, according to Nikolis.
“To carve out that niche in a city like Chicago … it takes a real commitment from the top, from your owner, from your team president, in terms of staffing and resources to creating that type of culture to take on that opportunity and not shy away from it,” he said.
“I have nothing but positive things to say about the job they’ve done there with the Wolves and I certainly don’t see any reason why it’s not going to continue going forward.”