Chicago Wolves: The farm team that reaps what it sows

By Nick Zazulia

Any sports team wants to win, but when you are a minor league team with a developmental deal to season prospects for another team, that can’t be your only priority.

Can it?

According to Wendell Young, the general manager of the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, who are in their third year of such a partnership with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, it pretty much is.

“It starts up top with ownership (team founders Don Levin and Buddy Meyers). They demand winning and give us what we need to do that,” Young said. “We finished third one year, I get told that’s not a good year.”

That may be why the Wolves have never had a losing season since they were founded as an International Hockey League team in 1994.

Bearing the unique distinction of having won the NHL’s Stanley Cup, AHL’s Calder Cup, IHL’s Turner Cup and Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup in various capacities, Young is familiar with success on the ice. His opinion is that NHL player development will be the natural byproduct of building a successful team at the AHL level.

He has help pursuing that success in his coach. John Anderson was an NHL winger before spending 11 seasons coaching the Wolves from 1997-2008. After stints coaching the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) and Phoenix Coyotes, he is back with the Wolves.

So Anderson and Young play the players they think give them the best chance to win, regardless of whether they are also the young guys with the draft pedigrees. That would chasten some NHL clubs, who will rely on those young draft picks to fill out their lines in the coming years.

According to Young, some AHL teams, particularly ones owned by their NHL parent clubs, have no problem forsaking wins in favor of ice time for prospects. St. Louis has firsthand knowledge of that dynamic.

Wendell Young
Owner Don Levin (right) demands winning from his hockey team and general manager Wendell Young (left) is tasked with making it happen. (Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)

“This is a different approach for us from when we owned and operated our own team in Peoria,” Blues assistant GM Kevin McDonald said in a phone interview. “But all you have to do is look at the Blues roster at guys like Jake Allen and Magnus Paajarvi, (at) how many guys have gone from being a full-time player in Chicago to being a full-time player in St. Louis.”

To Anderson, it’s no surprise that the strategies would mesh. His explanation is simple.

“Team X sends a guy down,” he said, “does it help them to succeed (for their NHL team) if they’re not good enough to play in the AHL?”

If a player can’t earn ice time and help the Wolves win, how is he going to help the Blues? Plus, you want to make sure he is building the right habits when he does get on the ice.

“Winning is just as much preparation as practicing,” said Anderson. “You’ll see guys say, ‘Has he won?’ about a guy.”

If something were going awry in the development of their prized prospects, the Blues would know about it. McDonald echoed Young that the Blues are in contact with the Wolves almost daily, which “keeps everybody pretty much in lockstep.”

St. Louis’ staff watches 80 percent of Chicago’s games and has a frequent presence at the facilities.

“It’s not as if it’s just phone calls,” McDonald said. “We’re in there almost every week watching for ourselves the development of the prospects.”

The verdict?

“We have been happy with (their development, and the players we have brought up) have been playing at a level where they can contribute,” said McDonald. “(Colton) Parayko and (Joel) Edmundson made the roster out of camp after developing (in Chicago) and haven’t returned to the American League. Same thing for Jake Allen. It’s not only having guys available for call-up and depth when the NHL team needs them, it’s having guys develop into full-time NHL players.”

Right now, things look good. The Blues’ record is 14-6-2 this season and they have made the playoffs each of the past four years, finishing first or second in the NHL’s competitive Central Division, despite having to contend with the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators.

As long as the Blues are prospering like that, if the Wolves want to prioritize winning, that’s their business.

But it’s not easy to do.

“It’s harder to coach here (in the AHL) than in the NHL,” said Anderson. “You’ve got 16 new players every year.”

With so much of an AHL team devoted to potential NHL depth and draft picks, there’s much more turnover on an AHL roster than on the big team, which makes continuity and consistent success difficult.

One thing the Wolves can do to help accomplish that is fill the holes on their roster with veteran players that will help establish a culture.

“You look at your vets, they’re leaders,” said Young, indicating players such as Peter Harrold and captain Pat Cannone. “Any hockey player, all they’re looking for is to be led.”

Still, when you have a loaded system like the Blues’, that sometimes makes it harder to recruit. Young said the Wolves lost Shane Harper and 2014 captain Brent Regner to other teams after their contracts expired last offseason because of better chances at the NHL.

If you can’t rely on promising tons of ice time and NHL call-ups, you pitch other things.

“The organization’s biggest trump card is Chicago,” said Young. “To hockey players — or better yet, the players’ wives, who are sitting in that town — Chicago is a big sell.”

Being by a major city with a good mix of visibility for players and entertainment for their families is a big draw in free agency, particularly among the veterans the Wolves are likely to target.

And it doesn’t hurt that winning is fun.

Photo at top: Chicago Wolves head coach Johnny Anderson, who spent 12 years playing forward in the NHL and brought the Wolves 4 league championships during his first 11-year coaching stint in Chicago.(Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves)