As part of the expansion of our coverage of all things Canuck for the 2011-12 season – we are going to be checking in with the Chicago Wolves at least once a week. To kick things off, this week the Army spoke with Jason Shaver, who since 2008 has been the play-by-play commentator of the Chicago Wolves. From a family of hockey broadcasters, and a former college player, the Minnesotan clearly knows his stuff and seemed an ideal candidate to help us kick off our 2011-12 Chicago Wolves coverage by giving us some insight into the Wolves as an organization.
PJ: So 2 days into Wolves training camp, what’s your impression of how are things going?
JS: Right now it’s a little bit tough to judge because there’s just so many numbers. I would equate it to Vancouver just two days in, when you have so many guys coming in from Youngstars camp…just so many bodies. The guys playing and practising today aren’t necessarily the guys who are going to be here.
We saw a few of the Canucks prospects practise today but Monday they didn’t. For some of these guys it started up in Pentiction; they’ve been at it for a long time – and to have to travel from Vancouver to Chicago now it’s tough. We didn’t see anyone outside of a couple of the invite guys, I think Longpre and Clackson, they skated on Monday. Today we saw Connauton and a few of the other guys who just got here. In that regard it’s been hard to judge because they are intermixed with the couple dozen ECHL and Central Hockey League guys that are here.
PJ : What’s Craig MacTavish looking for at this point?
JS: It’s a little bit of ‘when Vancouver has an injury, [Chicago] will lose a good player.’ You’re trying to get a good look at guys who will be the call ups from the Central league or the ECHL. You hand out some favours at training camp at this level, you invite some guys to see where they’re at, and you prepare because throughout the season, there’ll be injuries. You need to get a little bit of a look at the half dozen guys who you might be comfortable with having step in and filling some holes for the Wolves when Vancouver has some needs.
PJ: Looking at the change in affiliation, what kind of adaptations are going to have to be made? The relationship with Atlanta lasted for ten years…
JS: Right off the bat, the one difference is that Vancouver has more input than Atlanta did. Atlanta was a good partner for the Wolves in the regard that the Wolves coaching staff and organization were able to target some free agents themselves. Atlanta didn’t have as much depth in terms of ‘guys they wanted to play’, whereas with Vancouver; you look at Manitoba’s roster last year, they had two number one picks in Hodgson and Schroeder, a goaltender in Eddie Lack who probably surprised everyone… It was attractive for the Wolves when they were looking for an NHL affiliate. There were several teams knocking on the Wolves door, but the prospects that Vancouver has and were offering up were excellent.
You work a little bit on your coaching staff; Mactavish brings a great resume in and so do the Canucks as an organization. Atlanta let the Wolves do a little more on their own, but Vancouver is going to be a bit more of a top to bottom influence, in terms of systems, coaching. I think there’ll be a little bit more transparency. Nowadays, most teams do play pretty much the same systems, it’s just a bit of minor tweaking, but it is going to be a bit more of a Vancouver influence. We saw a little bit of this last year with Rick Dudley, who did things a bit differently from Don Waddell over the prior nine years.
PJ: Now the change in coach: Don Lever, who was there before, had a bit of a pedigree himself, but now we have Craig MacTavish, a guy Vancouver fans are so used to thinking of as the ‘enemy’. Nonetheless he comes in with a pretty impressive resume, what have you noticed as different between the two?
JS: In fairness, I’ve seen MacTavish for only two days, he’s barely been on the ice, they’ve been scrimmaging and MacTavish’s been in the stands watching mostly. Lever is a bit more of an ‘old school’ coach – when he came in, he put in a fair bit of discipline and structure and that worked the first year. Last year we had a team that should have been equally as good but, for whatever reason, just didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Now was that players? Coaching? When you’ve got a team that demands success on the ice the way the Wolves do, or the way the Canucks do, you’ve got to look at everyone . From my understanding of MacTavish (from players who’ve played for him in the past), he’s very much a players coach. He looks to have been brought in here to be a bit of teacher to these younger Canucks prospects. Lever certainly came in his first year and had a good bit of success. Last year’s record was good, but for whatever reason wasn’t good enough to get into the playoffs.
PJ: The Wolves have never had a losing season, so clearly there is an organizational philosophy – what would you say the Chicago Wolves bring to the table?
JS: Different NHL teams have different philosophies in terms of how they want their prospects to develop. The thing the Wolves bring to the table here is that an NHL teams prospects are going to develop in a winning atmosphere. The expectation here in Chicago has been, and always will be to put a championship calibre team on the ice. They’ve won 4 titles in 18 years of existence and the titles have all come in the last 14 years, because Don Levin, the owner, that is his mandate. He’ll spend money and at the end of the day, if the team doesn’t win the championship, he never wants it to be his fault; because he didn’t charter a plane to lessen the travel burden will over a given weekend, or something. The excuse is never going to be that he didn’t put his money in to help the team in whatever way he could, to give the team whatever advantage that he could. And he puts that expectation on the coach and the general manager and so forth that, ‘hey, we’re in it to win it.’
I think Vancouver, you look at their track record in Manitoba, while they certainly didn’t have any championships during that time, they did have very good teams, teams that were in contention to win a championship and I think that’s why Vancouver was interested in parking with the Wolves as well. The Canucks want their players to be able to develop in an atmosphere that’s very competitive, you’ve got to fight to get into the lineup and when you’re in the lineup you are expected to win.
PJ: Who goes to Wolves games? What do they market to?
JS: Hockey is very popular right now in Chicago. Chicago has always been a fairly good hockey town – though prior to the recent Hawks resurgence, there was a lack of the casual sports fan interest. The Wolves’ attendance, if you look at it, in the last 6/7 years has held pretty steady. So while the Blackhawks weren’t very good, the Wolves were still drawing fairly well. Now that the Blackhawks are recent Stanley Cup champions and have attracted a lot more casual hockey fans, there’s a lot more talk being generated in this marketplace about hockey. The Blackhawks success hasn’t affected the Wolves attendance very much because ticket prices for a Chicago Blackhawks game are much higher than for a wolves game. The wolves market to families; you can get a family 4 pack for $75. They play in what is now an older arena (Allstate Arena), it’s a bit I guess like the Pacific Coliseum but it does seat 15,000 and on Saturday nights there’ll be anywhere between 12 and14 thousand people there, and that’s regardless of if the blackhawks are at home or not at home. It’s a good hockey market and the one thing the wolves stress is it’s going to be a fun team to watch and with affordable prices. They go after a fan base that can’t afford to attend too many Blackhawks games.
PJ: Looking at your own prep that you are doing for the season, is there an underdog player you are looking at, or a particular narrative you are watching for?
JS: The way we do things here is we prep as much as possible to be ready to layout how it’ll all unfold. Right now, the Canucks are very banged up, with a couple of guys coming off of major injuries who won’t be ready for the beginning of the season. That is going to affect some of the depth which the Wolves possess and – lo and behold – in Sunday’s preseason game the Canucks suffer a couple more injuries (Pinizzotto and Rome). The storyline right now is not quite what we thought it was going to be a month ago. Of the six or seven guys who we thought would be competing for two fourth line spots, a couple of those guys are now hurt, now it’s five guys fighting for two spots. I think the Wolves’ depth has taken a hit.
With Kesler not being ready to go, early in the summer it looked like we might have Cody Hodgson or Schroeder, now it’s almost a given that the Wolves are not going to have one, or either of them. It’s a little bit of wait and see. If the Canucks ever get healthy, I think we’re going to see a great team down here.
It’s a weird dilemma to be in, so we try not to comment too much on who’s going to be here. You don’t want to root for a Mark Mancari or a Steve Pinizzotto because, frankly they’re going to camp hoping to make the Canucks and as a player, that’s where they should be. We shouldn’t be out there touting that they are going to be in Chicago
PJ: One last question, perhaps it will be part of the narrative going forward actually, how is it going to be having the Canucks’ top affiliate in the same town as their fiercest rival?
JS: From a hockey standpoint, it is a great affilition to be with the Vancouver Canucks. As we’ve alluded to earlier in this conversation, they’ve got some very good, young prospects and they’ve had success in Manitoba putting a quality product on the ice. The organizational philosophy is great.
I don’t know that, from a team marketing standpoint, that the Wolves are going to be screaming from the hilltops that our affilitate is the Vancouver Canucks because right now, the biggest rival for the Blackhwaks is Vancouver. Now I’m not in Vancouver but I certainly know the hatred, you just look at the reaction from game 7 last year that they ‘slayed the Dragon’ beating the Blackhawks’ from your fan base. From a marketing standpoint I think they’ll downplay the affilition a little bit, just because you don’t want to rile up the casual fan here, but from a hockey standpoint, very excited for the affiliation.
I’m sure Abbotsford runs into the same thing, they are trying to brand themselves as the Abbotsford Heat, sure it’s Calgary, but at the end of the day, the people that are going to go a Heat game are people who can’t afford to go to 41 Canucks games a year. From that standpoint we’re not going to avoid it, but it is a little bit different from when you are affilitated with the Atlanta Thrashers because they play the Hawks once every two years at home. It wasn’t really a rivalry at all.
PJ: Thanks a lot for doing this!
JS: Ya, thank you. Let me know if I can help out again.
Jason is on twitter, follow him here