The Chicago hockey that John Anderson left in 2008 is long gone.
The Wolves haven’t added to their four league titles since then, and missed the American Hockey League playoffs this year. The Blackhawks, a franchise they once positioned themselves against as direct opposition, have risen to the top of hockey and are held up as a model organization across all sports.
Yet there was nothing but optimism around Anderson and his return to the Wolves bench, which was formally announced Tuesday at Harry Caray’s. Attendance this season ticked up to 8,230 per game, second in the league. Instead of affiliating with the Vancouver Canucks, the Wolves will be the AHL squad for the St. Louis Blues, a franchise that gave them the green light to hire their own coach and pick more of their players.
But make no mistake, the landscape Anderson walks into is much different than the one he left five years ago. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing for the Wolves.
“The Blackhawks, by being so good, have developed more interest in hockey,” Wolves chairman Don Levin said. “Nine years ago, you would have had a hard time finding anything going less than eight pages into the newspaper on hockey. Now it’s the back cover.
“They’re bringing the tide up and we’re coming up with it. We think it’s great they’re doing well.”
That, of course, is a far cry from where the Wolves once were. They were the winning alternative to a moribund and negative Blackhawks franchise. They never said it explicitly, but they loved rubbing the Blackhawks’ noses in their failures.
For that to work the Wolves had to win. And they did. They won titles in both the International Hockey League and the AHL. They had popular players such as Steve Maltais and Wendell Young, likable stars that weren’t leaving anytime soon.
Then there was Anderson. He made it go, helping the Wolves play an exciting yet effective brand of hockey that led to six finals appearances in 11 seasons.
Now, however, the Wolves don’t have the monopoly on success in Chicago. If they try to position themselves as an alternative to the Hawks, fans would turn up their noses at what they see. The Blackhawks are just as successful and just as likable. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane aren’t going anywhere, and another title could be coming soon.
That’s now the Wolves’ lot in life. They’re not complaining, but looking to make the most of it. Instead of Blackhawks foes, the Wolves are now a complement, a different choice with lower prices and more available tickets.
“I think we’ve got to be winning with the Hawks now. We can’t be the alternative because they are winning,” Levin said. “I think that our job is to be the second championship team. I’d like to bring two Cups next year.”
The Blackhawks, however, aren’t the source of the pressure Anderson is feeling.
“If you accept mediocrity then you’re going to get mediocrity,” Anderson said. “We could win every game next year and I guarantee you we’re not going to win the Stanley Cup. But certainly in our right, it’s just as hard to win [an AHL title], maybe harder. I don’t know.”
Anderson is a link to the Wolves’ greatest years. In 11 seasons, Anderson won 506 games and those four league titles. Then he left in 2008, becoming a head coach for two seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers before landing as an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes.
While Anderson coached in the NHL, the Wolves had some good teams, winning 40 or more games twice but never matching the earlier titles.
The style of play, while fundamentally sound under predecessor Scott Arniel, was at times boring and grinding. Though that can be pleasing to the hockey purist, and one Anderson can play as well, that doesn’t appeal to the casual hockey fan the Wolves need to thrive in a market overrun with Blackhawks fever.
“It’s fun scoring goals as a player, but it’s also fun for fans,” said Young, now the team’s GM. “Go to a 3-2 game or a 6-5 game, what do you like better? Probably the 6-5 because there’s more cheering, more excitement, more things happening.
“We’re not saying we’re not going to play defense, and that’s one of Johnny’s philosophies. Hey, you gotta be responsible defensively, but have at it and be creative going forward,” he added. “And that’s what Johnny’s big thing is. Let’s go at the other team and see if they can stack up.”
For most of their history the Wolves have stacked up well against their competition, be it rivals like the Grand Rapids Griffins, Milwaukee Admirals, or the other hockey team in town. But these days, the other team in town has become a behemoth.
When asked, Young said the Wolves “absolutely” have to stay exciting and successful as the Hawks continue to rise.
“Life’s easy for an organization when you win. You don’t have to explain when you win, and that’s what happens here,” Young said. “How great would that be if both hockey teams won a championship? That would be awesome and you know what? The success of the Blackhawks is awesome. They deserve a lot of credit for rejuvenating a lot of hockey in Chicago, and we feel the residuals.”
It’s now up to Anderson to help the Wolves truly capitalize.