Pyrotechnics, public outreach and, oh yeah, puck
Approaching their 25th anniversary, the Chicago Wolves have achieved a rare feat by sticking as a minor-league franchise in a definitive major-league market. They have done so, in large part, by being an entity that almost anyone with on- or off-ice ties would just as soon stick with.
The Chicago Wolves have prepared future stars — or at least energizing role players — for the Super Bowl and Grammy Awards. Among their spectators, they have influenced prodigies in the special-effects business.
Yes, they have honed eventual Stanley Cup contenders as well. And they have planted a penchant for pucks in local prospective skaters. As for themselves, they have amassed four playoff crowns — two apiece in the International and American League.
But their direct and secondhand on-ice accomplishments only make part of their story. Without the tales of their off-ice prowess, the point does not sink in.
“We wanted to make it entertaining, other than just hockey,” co-founder and Chairman Don Levin told Pucks and Recreation.
Levin’s vision for the former spawned Strictly FX, which has erupted into a model special-effects company. The enterprise and its precursor have fueled the Wolves’ stimulating pregame bonanza throughout the team’s 24 seasons and counting.
In the NHL, fireworks are not unheard of at marquee events. You will see them shoot into the open air at the Winter Classic. At enclosed arenas, they might pop out of the ceiling on opening night, when a home team clinches the Cup or after smaller victories.
The same happens in other sports, and among other minor-league or collegiate programs with a big-enough building and budget.
But Levin wanted every night to be a special occasion for his customers. He ordered guaranteed glitz for everyone attending a single game at the Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena). Since the fall of 1994, Mark Grega and Ted Maccabee have taken charge of delivering that.
Early on, Grega and Maccabee oversaw the pregame festivities in a detached collaboration. As they said in an October 2011 segment on the Wolves YouTube channel, they were taken aback by the hefty request. But they obliged with nightly supplies of fireworks, flames and lasers.
Strictly FX, however, traces its inception to 1996, when the Wolves were entering their third year. As Maccabee told Projection Lights & Staging News in 2016, Levin would only continue his and Grega’s contracts if they formally merged.
“Basically, we were designing the shows through another firm, which wanted to go another direction,” Maccabee elaborated in an e-mail to Pucks and Rec. “With the encouragement of Mr. Levin, we formed Strictly FX.”
Within another two years, one of Prince’s designers requested the company’s lasers. Two decades later, the bulk of their commitments are with mainstream musical acts.
The quantity and quality of Strictly FX’s clients are not unlike the scrolls of past and present NHLers among Wolves alumni. In fact, the former may exceed the latter on both counts. The range of acts utilizing their flair and flare include Beyonce, Coldplay, Roger Waters and WWE.
The company is an eight-time Parnelli Award winner for top pyro company of the year. It has flaunted its work at other award shows, including the CMAs, Grammys and People’s Choice. And it has handled the halftime effects at many recent Lombardi Trophy Games.
“And it’s all an offshoot of the Wolves,” Levin proudly remarked.
An offshoot that has never broken off from its roots. Grega and Maccabee still have their pawprints on the presentation at Allstate Arena.
“Before the Wolves’ pregame spectaculars,” Maccabee said, “there were only a few companies in the world that even understood how to put all this together. The Wolves’ shows fundamentally created a new type of company in Strictly FX. The Live Special Effects moniker was a name born on the footsteps of the Allstate Arena and the Chicago Wolves.
“We have always looked at the Wolves’ openness and forward-thinking as being a design lab for our work. It has always been a true give-and-take partnership.”
He added, “We will always appreciate and honor the people and places that brought us to where we are today. The Wolves were not just there, but were the very beginning of our journey to becoming a world-class special-effects team. That is as special as it gets.”
Bursts of inspiration
If you have never witnessed Strictly FX’s breakout spectacle, go watch any “Chicago Wolves intro” upload. Then query the equivalent for any team in any other league, NHL included. You are sure to find something, but likely not an equivalent.
By comparison, most anything else looks, sounds and feels like a scholastic study-a-thon with classical music penetrating the silence. Among Chicago sideshows, the Wolves even drown out the dynasty-era Bulls intro that made “Sirius” a clichéd arena melody.
“It’s unmatched in any rink: NHL or American Hockey League,” general manager Wendell Young, who co-starred in the introductions as a goalie for seven years, told Pucks and Rec. “We always tell the fans to get there early.
“That’s a part of our whole package of why we’re successful. We’re very much an entertainment package, with a hockey game going on.”
The team has the accolades to back Young’s word. In December 2013, Gameops.com declared the display the best team introduction in all of professional sports. The prizes in other categories that year went to MLB and NBA franchises.
That honor underscores Grega and Maccabee’s commitment to never stagnating as they keep giving this minor-league team major-league treatment. When the franchise was making its first impression, that was crucial to reflecting a clear message the Wolves wanted to send.
As senior executive vice president Wayne Messmer told Pucks and Rec, the key was stressing the “pro” half of “minor pro.” To stress the grit and guts of almost-NHL action, they put forth the tagline, “These guys are animals.”
“We were going to have real checking, real guys playing hard,” said Messmer. “Not an adult, no-check league.”
Accordingly, the introductions came out hammering. They started with fireworks bursting over the neutral zone and cone-generated flames flanking the players as they entered from behind the opposing net. Since the inaugural game, the elements have danced to the rhythm of the “Kickstart My Heart” chorus.
Ooh, yeah (boom)/Kickstart my heart/Give it a start/Ooh, yeah (boom), ba(crack)by(crack)
Ooh, yeah (boom)/Kickstart my heart/Hope it never stops/Ooh, yeah (boom), ba(crack)by(crack)
The entrance later acquired a tunnel shaped like a gaping wolf’s mouth. With it came a pair of paws to emit the fire. Together, when dormant, some incarnations of the props have looked like a wild canine mimicking the Great Sphinx of Giza.
Most, if not all spectators might as well be in Egypt for those spurts when the 20-foot flames rise. Even Young says he can feel the heat from his box above the two-layered seating bowl. Those not well-versed in physical science wonder how the ice stays playable.
Over time, the extravaganza has experimented with other dressings, adding some permanently. There is no shortage of howling audio, lest anyone forget the franchise’s spirit animal.
The center-ice screen may flash an extra music highlight video to warm everyone up for the Motley Crue montage. Or it might intersperse nature footage with players narrating the words of Rudyard Kipling.
At ice level, Skates the mascot procured a pair of gauntlets to blast sparks from the center dot. Smoke has snorted from the unbelievably inanimate wolf tunnel’s nostrils. Extra cauldrons on the circle tops light up in sync with the wolf’s paws. More flames have fumed from atop the scoreboard.
And barring a shutout, Strictly FX’s night is not over when the crew strikes the set. There are sometimes enough leftover fireworks for when the home team strikes the net.
Through 24 seasons, the Wolves have put on this show 1,074 times. That includes every regular-season and playoff game in the building’s hockey history plus the 2001 IHL All-Star Game.
Those who have experienced the atmosphere in person must marvel whenever visitors win here. Even the IHL All-Stars lost to a then-slumping Chicago squad, 4-0, on their try.
In more seriousness, those who do not know better must wonder how this bombastic bonanza has continued. The longevity of the team itself is impressive on its own, as is its budget.
But while the team’s website and public-address announcer warn potentially sensitive spectators in advance, it is still amazing how few grievances they have heard regarding the surplus of sight and sound.
“Noise pollution?” Levin asked, as if unfamiliar with the phrase.
Enough of the community has paid heed to the advisories. As Levin can recall, Wolves season-ticket holders have never been subject to case studies by Cook County audiologists. Management has not fielded any Helen Lovejoy-type pleas to “think of the children.”
The fact is anyone who knows the Wolves knows they very much do think of the local youth. That was part of the franchise’s premise, and one of its keys to signature status in North America’s second-best hockey league. It offers a bargain at game time, then generously returns people’s visits around the great Midwestern metropolis.
“It’s fun, it’s good, it’s inexpensive,” said Levin, whose only child, Robert, was two when the team formed and recently played goal at Arizona State. “A family having a good time for not a lot of money.”
Robert Levin is one completed example of the game’s influence on green Horizon/Allstate Arena goers. As for the pregame’s life-changing potential, the quintessence was one spontaneous student of special effects.
“At age 13, he would often stand behind the glass next to our shooting position and watch as we would fire them,” Maccabee recalled. “He has now become a world-class show designer, and now we are a customer of his!
“It’s a testament to the incredible reach that the Wolves’ show has had over the years.”
A quarter-century of that reach affirms what began, at least on the surface, as a gamble on the rebound.
‘A comeback in every way.’
Allstate Arena, which basically borders Chicago proper, was not built with hockey in mind. It was conceived that way, but the WHA’s Chicago Cougars folded before construction. As Sports Illustrated’s Mark Mulvoy wrote in 1975, “the Cougars’ planned new arena in suburban Rosemont had melted away in the heat of local politics.”
The building opened five years later, under the village of Rosemont’s jurisdiction. By that point, the whole WHA had evaporated, leaving the NHL as its sport’s only major league again.
With no superior venues available within their city, DePaul University men’s basketball became the Horizon’s first tenant. The Blue Demons were variously joined by flash-in-the-pan semipro hoops and indoor soccer and football teams. Otherwise, they and touring musicians were the chief fillers of a venue seating anywhere between 16,000 and 18,500.
Then professional indoor roller hockey became a hit. Levin says that was when he, along with Buddy Meyers and ex-Blackhawk Grant Mulvey, sought a franchise in Chicago’s name.
Levin was the lifelong Chicagolander of the group, and brought broad business acumen to the table. His production company has connections to aircraft, medical equipment, movies, sporting goods and tobacco.
Mulvey, a former 10-year pro who later coached the Wolves before leaving the game in 1997, had the most hockey knowhow. Although Meyers, the current vice chair, had been an NHL players’ agent and the Soviet Red Army team’s attorney.
Together, the troika had the name, logo and the works ready for a coming-out party.
It never happened, at least not on wheels.
Other groups would put Chicago in Roller Hockey International for a time. The Cheetahs played one year at the smaller UIC Pavilion, then another at the Odeum Expo Center in Villa Park. Five years after the Cheetahs folded, the Chicago Bluesmen operated at the tiny Fox Valley Arena for RHI’s 1999 swan song.
As for the Wolves, the timeline and treasure trove are self-explanatory.
“Twenty-four years later, four championships plus division titles,” a soft-spoken Meyers told Pucks and Rec. “I think we’re pretty happy.”
By the time RHI collapsed, the Mulvey-led team had completed five IHL seasons. One of two Triple-A ice leagues at the time, the IHL had ambitiously expanded to major cities. It would try such ex-WHA or established NHL markets as Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles. (Since 2013, only Cleveland has kept a team at that level.)
Upon gaining approval for Chicago, the Wolves set up shop at the Horizon, which finally sprang for ice-making equipment. Within four weeks of announcing itself, the franchise received more than 1,000 season-ticket requests.
Some of those calls doubtlessly came from estranged Blackhawks fans. Though respectable in the standings, the local Original Six team suffered from what many considered polarizing ownership by Bill Wirtz.
Even Messmer, who has legendarily belted the national anthem at every major Chicago sports venue in his lifetime, wanted in on the new club.
Messmer’s greatest Chicago Stadium performance happened on the heels of Operation Desert Storm at the 1991 NHL All-Star Game. The next year, he fulfilled the same duty at Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on the heels of appearing in John Goodman’s Babe Ruth biopic.
Two years later, he was one of the NHL’s first loose pucks happily joining the upstart pack in the suburbs. Familiar faces to follow included winger Al Secord, a 466-game Blackhawks veteran who came out of a four-year retirement.
Four days after participating in the Wolves’ formal 25th season kick-off this month, Messmer was reached via cell while RVing with his family at Mount Rushmore. In a way, it was the perfect spot to reflect on his entry into sports executive work.
There he was beholding the massive mugs of four legendary leaders of the free world, including two Founding Fathers. In his own smaller-scale, but hardly trivial, endeavors, he completed a quartet that launched one American dream factory.
“It was the opportunity to be at the ground level, putting the organization together as a builder,” he told Pucks and Rec of the Wolves’ allure. “It was a challenge and a great opportunity, and I saw the potential.”
He set a precedent with that attitude. When the franchise was two going on three, it hired another Chicagoland lifer, though one with admittedly negligible hockey exposure.
Courtney Mahoney had attended Badgers basketball and football games while studying at the University of Wisconsin. She had also interned with the Detroit Pistons. But coming home to something fundamentally new enticed her upon graduation.
“There was a lot of room to grow,” she told Pucks and Rec. “I wanted the opportunity to learn.”
Messmer came to the club with his own learning curve. He had held marketing posts for both residents of Chicago Stadium plus both of the city’s baseball teams. He also experienced trial and error by working with the defunct Chicago Sting soccer franchise.
As the market’s IHL vision took shape, Messmer joined the founding troika at a meeting where, “as I love to say, I was the only guy taking notes.” For the rest of the winter of 1994, they set about forming the franchise’s philosophy and filling carefully crafted office positions.
But six months and five days before opening night, a ghastly incident nearly silenced the songster. Still working for the Blackhawks, Messmer was en route to a favorite postgame hangout in the wee hours of April 9. An assailant fired a bullet through his car window, hitting his neck.
Hospitalized in serious condition at the time, Messmer sustained devastating damage to his throat. He missed the Hawks’ last two regular-season and three playoff outings at the original Madhouse on Madison. He later recalled being told 18 months might elapse before he restored normalcy in his speaking voice.
Within one-third of that timetable, he strolled onto the Rosemont Horizon’s red carpet. Together with his wife, Kathleen, he was ready to make the last and most recognizable mark on a start-up where he “had my fingerprints on literally everything.” The duet was set to complement organist Nancy Faust, something else borrowed from the downtown venues.
Before Chicago took a 4-2 decision from the Detroit Vipers, Messmer officially added the Wolves to his Star-Spangled resume.
“It was a comeback in every way,” he said.
In the fall of 1994, Messmer had ample company among local fans with rusty vocal cords. A host of setbacks was plaguing the Windy City’s major-league sports scene.
The ongoing baseball players’ strike had cut the Cubs and White Sox seasons short. If normalcy had continued, the Sox would have likely made the playoffs.
Chicago Stadium, home of the Bulls and Blackhawks, was giving way to the United Center. But interest in pro basketball was still dented by Michael Jordan’s first retirement. Meanwhile, another work stoppage in the NHL put the Blackhawks in their own indefinite deep freeze.
“We certainly got more attention than we would have if those things didn’t happen,” allowed Levin. “There was an opportunity to go see us, and so we got a lot of people to come and sample us.”
Still, Levin’s group entered the year not banking on outside assistance, let alone major-league misfortunes. Like a cerebral skater, they were a few steps ahead of their obstacles in the game.
Levin foresaw most pairs of ticketholders — husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, parent-child, buddy-buddy — being one-half established puckhead, one-half novice viewer.
Making the latter say they went to a virtual Motley Crue concert and a hockey game broke out was good insurance. Ditto assorted contests and interactive sideshows after whistles and between periods.
With that kind of package, who needed Ringling Brothers? Who needed the city-limits sports experience where, Messmer supposed, most would be “working two jobs to afford the tickets”?
Besides his employer’s own merit, Young made allowances for the breaks the Wolves caught early in their box-office battle.
“A perfect storm was happening here,” he said. “(The Blackhawks) were not doing well even before the lockout.”
Afterward, Young recalled, there were Sunday afternoons when matinees on Madison Street and Mannheim Road went head-to-head. It was not unheard of for Wolves games to bring in a bigger audience than an overlapping Blackhawks ticket. They still did on occasion as late as their 10th season.
They also outclassed their NHL neighbors in TV viewership, for they were playing against themselves on that front. When the Hawks returned for a shortened 1995 season, their home games were still off the air, per Wirtz’s policy.
For their sophomore year, the Wolves inked a deal to put a minimum 22 home and road games apiece on a local network. Their carrier has changed multiple times, but their presence in living rooms and the returned favors of fans at their house stuck.
By 2003-04, their 10th anniversary, all 80 games could be seen on a Comcast station. Two years later, when Wirtz dropped Blackhawks play-by-play man Pat Foley, the Wolves picked him up.
The Hawks eventually hired Foley back. Today another channel offers a scaled-back slate of televised Wolves games. When that is not an option, anyone with Internet service can watch a webcast through the AHL’s site.
But Levin and partners never fear fans choosing home convenience over the full Allstate Arena experience.
“Very easy decision to make,” he said of the TV deals.
Pact with the pack
Allstate Arena’s configuration forces the Wolves to breach a bit of hockey etiquette.
At youth games, you may hear coaches telling players to stay on their side of the center line during warmups. That is easy to do in conventional venues, where the runway to one’s zone leads either to one’s bench or across from it.
But the big rink in Rosemont that got its first team at age 14 placed its locker rooms behind the Zamboni entrance. As such, amid the pregame festivities, the Wolves make the first ice scrapings in their competitor’s crease.
For the padded personnel of both parties, that is just the business. Sometimes you have to deal with strangely structured facilities and delayed access. For Wolves visitors, who have no right to pass under the lupine leviathan, this means literally working around the tunnel just to enter and pump your legs for a minute less.
That may be work, but don’t bring up the B-word to the boss.
“It’s not like a business,” Levin insists. “I love it.”
Once the home players join Levin in street clothes, like Young has full-time since 2001, it is back to equal treatment for all guests. Now the GM imparts a straightforward message to his charges at every year’s preseason meeting.
“We are accessible,” Young tells them.
He should know. This franchise let him access high-quality competition when he had nowhere else to go this side of any ocean.
Even if the 1994-95 NHL lockout did not singlehandedly nourish the Wolves, it certainly spurred Young’s role in their chronicles. He has been with the club since the start, with only a half-year in Pittsburgh interrupting his tenure.
An 11-year professional veteran of 177 NHL games in four cities, Young peaked with the Penguins, logging 43 appearances in 1989-90. He later accepted two IHL conditioning assignments in as many years with Tampa Bay.
But at 31, he should have been a staple in The Show when the first Gary Bettman-era work stoppage began. Looking to stay sharp while the Lightning lacked room in their minor-league system, he joined the independent Wolves.
“I got a taste of what the organization was about,” he said. “The city itself, everything around it. Quite honestly, it was better-run than some NHL teams.”
On Feb. 16, 1995, one month into the belated season, Tampa Bay traded Young’s rights back to Pittsburgh. He logged 10 games there, but could not dislodge the incumbents ahead of him going forward.
As he flickered, at best, on the radar of the league’s other 25 teams, he remembered his outstanding experience in Rosemont. The Wolves were equally receptive to bringing him back.
“So I jumped on it,” he said.
He went on to play 322 games for Chicago’s IHL chapter, winning 169. Over a seven-year span dating back to the lockout, only four skaters wore the Wolves crest more than Young. That was no small feat on a team that stayed unaffiliated for five seasons and kept or brought back 10 players for four years or more.
This was the right hospice for a languishing NHL dream. It was such an ideal arrangement that death is not even the operative metaphor. Unprecedented living and the spawn of inviting transitions to the front office framed the narrative properly.
Part of that notion reaffirmed itself in 2010 when hockey’s most famous Chicagoan wrapped up a Hall-of-Fame career. Chris Chelios, who captained his hometown Hawks during his peak years as an award-winning defenseman, could not be acquired on two previous tries.
He stood pat during the 1994-95 lockout, and was a Red Wing when the 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled. As such, he passed the time with the United League’s Motor City Mechanics.
But after being released by Detroit, he came home and dressed with the Wolves in hopes of reviving his NHL candidacy. He would for a while, but closed everything out in the 2010 AHL playoffs, where Chicago fell one overtime goal short of the Calder Cup Final.
As for Young, he admitted that, “I could have left and never come back. But I was enticed by the way the organization was run and how caring they were about their family. It just kept me coming back.”
Young is known as the Ringmaster for having collected championship jewelry in major junior, the NHL and two high-end minor leagues. In his days patrolling creases and bench doors, he amassed six rings in all.
First he won Canada’s coveted Memorial Cup in the middle of his last amateur stop in Kitchener. Five years after going pro, he backstopped the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup and garnered the tournament MVP trophy. He was on Pittsburgh’s depth chart when the Penguins claimed back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.
But he did not complete his peerless cycle with the IHL’s Turner Cup until three years after deciding he had a good thing going in Chicagoland. That decision also ensured his first home-ice championship clincher at any level.
It happened on Monday, June 15, 1998. One night after Jordan sank his go-ahead shot to put away the Bulls’ last title in Utah, the Wolves sold out the Horizon for Game 7 of their final.
One night before the NHL’s Red Wings repeated as champions, their fellow Detroit representatives looked to do the same. The matchup, Messmer recalled, “was always a nice rivalry. Kind of a leftover from the NHL.”
After tempers flared in the pregame warmup, the visiting Vipers succumbed to the Horizon’s heat. A three-goal outburst after the halfway mark of the third period usurped the Turner Cup for Chicago.
Never mind that Stephane Beauregard, the younger half of the rotating tandem, got the start and the shutout. Young was relishing an atmosphere he said “has never been matched by anything I’ve ever been a part of.”
Young was among the personnel who had experienced the previous hockey playoff finale in Chicago. His Penguins completed their repeat and a sweep of the Blackhawks in Chicago Stadium on June 1, 1992.
The two experiences, he said, were “right up against each other.”
Young added another title in 2000, then hung up his pads the next year. As his playing days and the IHL expired, he received the last Snider Trophy for “unselfish donation of time and other resources to charitable and educational efforts within his community.”
Perhaps his most selflessly sacrificed asset that year was the pair of lips he lent to a pig in a stunt he promised when the Wolves raised $10,000 for diabetes research.
He was the third Chicago player in five years to collect the Snider Trophy. Since then, the AHL’s equivalent award has gone to a Wolf twice. Stay-at-home defenseman Scooter Vaughan won it this year.
“It just goes to show we have quality people here,” Young said. “Character guys.”
With five league men of the year before even starting their 25th year, a seasoned Wolves spokesman like Young can get away with saying, “our team is off the charts compared to a lot of other teams. And that’s not knocking what other teams do.”
Young’s prototypical hockey humility is more self-evident when he deflects his own achievements, no matter how many he has logged.
As the team switched leagues, Young switched roles. He won another Calder Cup in 2002 as the executive director of team relations, then another as an assistant coach in 2008. After one more season in that capacity, he filled Kevin Cheveldayoff’s shoes as GM.
Before any of that, Allstate Arena hung up another banner, making Young’s No. 1 the franchise’s first retired digit. Every hunk of hardware he hugged during his playing career guest-starred the night his number went up.
He will round out a full decade as GM concomitant with the team finishing its silver anniversary. Between playing, coaching, directing team relations and assembling the roster, he will have been a Wolves employee for all 25 seasons.
“There’s not a lot of hockey players who have been around a team for 25 years,” said Levin.
In July, Young’s full body of work earned him the AHL’s Thomas Ebright Award “for career accomplishments to the AHL.” But he exemplifies his sport all the more through his deference to colleagues. While some may proclaim the one-time masked man the face of the pack, he points to those who stopped wearing blades long before he did, if they ever skated at all.
“We have a great staff that goes unrecognized for the most part,” he said. “We go and have fun playing the game we love. But it’s the behind-the-scenes people who make the difference in an organization. Most of the credit should go to them.”
Young would know, for he has seen the works of the same core group since he arrived. Besides the troika of Levin, Messmer and Meyers, all five members of the hockey operations staff plus team photographer Ross Dettman have been with the Wolves since their inception.
An additional four front-office or ownership personnel date back to the IHL. Four more figures have logged at least 10 years with the team.
Mahoney joined fresh out of college in 1996, and has risen to senior vice president of operations. Ticket-sales director Eric Zavilla also took his first full-time job with the Wolves, and will round out two decades this year.
“The trust that Don Levin and Buddy Meyers put into me is everything I’ve wanted,” said Mahoney. “I continue to work hard to earn that. I’m not sure you can get it anywhere else.”
Of course, some people do break off for bona fide big-league opportunities. In the past, Levin himself has expressed interest in owning an NHL team to the local media.
But the Wolves ownership structure still hasn’t changed. And even when people on lower rungs cannot be retained, that is helping to introduce the first wave of employees younger than the franchise itself. Between that and the one-time pups coming to IHL games now bringing their offspring to AHL tilts, the pack’s generational transcendence is blooming.
“We have a mantra on our team: We’re family,” said Young. “Once you’re a Wolf, you’re always a Wolf.”
The 2018 Stanley Cup Final pitted a rare pair of franchises shorter-tenured than their respective AHL affiliates. The champion Washington Capitals took root in 1974, 36 years after their development partner in Hershey.
Meanwhile, the Vegas Golden Knights, who won the West as a first-year expansion team, are the second parent club in Wolves history younger than the Wolves themselves. Previously, the Atlanta Thrashers arrived in 1999, allied with the Wolves in 2001, then cut ties upon moving to Winnipeg in 2011.
Although the new Jets first general manager, Cheveldayoff, stands as a legacy of that affiliation. He had built Chicago’s IHL and AHL championship teams in the same capacity. He won the NHL’s 2018 GM of the year award after the Jets lost the conference final to Vegas.
Over time, Wolves alumni in The Show may have waved a more visible variety of banners than the products of any other AHL mainstay. But for Levin, the key to that longevity, especially in the Blackhawks’ backyard, is sticking with their trademarks.
“Over the years, we’ve built our own identity,” he said. “It’s not part of smething else.”
Like an Original Six NHL team, the Wolves have never drastically altered their crest or colors. The pattern of the team jersey has changed, but always offers a crisp combination of burgundy, gold, black and white. (Except for the countless special-occasions jerseys, such as St. Patrick’s Day or Military Night.)
On the chest, the fang-flaunting wolf’s head originally meant for roller hockey has been another constant. Little has changed besides the addition or subtraction of a stick-and-puck backdrop.
Why would it? It once won back-to-back championships in The Hockey News’ minor-league logo competition.
Late in their IHL run, the Wolves finally joined forces with an NHL team. However, their affiliation with the New York Islanders was partial, and only rookie Rick DiPietro’s goalie equipment displayed any trace of it.
In the AHL, Chicago has linked with four different parent clubs. Throughout that time, it has silenced the cynics who assumed that, at some point, the Hawks would leave them a link-up or swallow-up choice.
Mere market size may be one fortuitous factor. The coexistence of the Cubs and White Sox is the last pure remnant of Major League Baseball’s old one-team-for-both-leagues-in-every-city makeup. Today New York and — depending on how you look at Anaheim — Los Angeles double dip with every major sports entity.
Chicago is the third-largest American metropolis behind those two, and braves its winters not unlike to its Upper Midwest neighbors. The latest Census estimate tallied a population of 2,716,450.
Cook County collectively boasted 5,211,263, a near 50-50 split between city and suburbs. It is the country’s second-largest county, and still does not cover all of Chicagoland.
All things considered, the area makes sense as a two-team hockey market. Still, it takes more than population and passion.
As Levin was apt to remember, the Toronto Roadrunners failed to get a lift-off in the IHL. That franchise finally came, only to leave after one year in 2003-04 as Edmonton’s AHL affiliate.
“We don’t get enough credit for what a great hockey city Chicago is,” said Messmer. “I think it’s the dedication to making it work from Don more than anything else. I credit that as No. 1. His passion for the game, love of the game and the organization.”
Simple arithmetic shows how special an AHL organization must be to successfully share a dateline with a marquee NHL club. The longevity of Chicago’s scenario only stopped doubling up everyone else’s, active or defunct, in 2016-17.
While the Wolves celebrate their silver anniversary, the Toronto Marlies will carry out their 14th season as the Maple Leafs’ crosstown affiliate. The Marlies now have sole possession of second place all-time, ahead of the Philadelphia Phantoms’ 13-year run as the Flyers’ nextdoor child club.
The Phantoms arrived in 1996, occupying the Spectrum until that hallowed hand-me-down mansion closed. Today they play in Allentown under the Lehigh Valley dateline.
At least those teams, like a few others past and present, had the local NHL squad’s expressed support. In the bygone IHL, the Detroit Vipers arrived concurrently with the Wolves. Sharing the Palace of Auburn Hills with the NBA’s Pistons, they initially thrived as a cheap, reliable alternative to the Red Wings.
But fair-weather fandom soon bit the Motor City moccasins. Not long after the Wolves denied them a Turner Cup repeat in 1998, the Vipers’ fortunes plummeted.
An nhl.com retrospective in 2015 supposed that, after operating independently, the Vipers doomed themselves by linking with a then-middling Tampa Bay parent club. The Bolts fed their roster with a revolving door of no-names who could not coalesce.
As they went in the win column, so they went at the gate. By 2001, the Vipers were one of the five unfortunate franchises to fold when the IHL caved in.
The Wolves were different. They filled all of the Blackhawks’ public-relations seams and proved that even big-city remoras crave a wallet-friendly sporting experience. All the team, on- and off-ice, needs to do is give the customers their money’s worth.
“We’re in the suburbs, the NHL team’s downtown,” said Young. “They’re focused on corporate, we’re focused on family.
“There is room in town for both of us.”
Allstate Arena, which college basketball ditched this year, is a jutting symbol of its tenant’s gentle-giant approachability. Depending on which direction you drive, it may be the first attraction you see after landing at O’Hare International Airport. It is a simple 10-minute drive up I-90 West.
But it does not pretend to be a part of the city and nobody else’s. Instead it brands itself “The Center of Chicagoland Entertainment.”
With a population hovering around 4,000, Rosemont is one of the smallest communities on the city’s outskirts. Allstate Arena could accommodate the people of four Rosemonts at a single Wolves game.
From April to October, the parking lot hosts the weekly Wolff’s Flea Market. (That’s a family name unrelated to the hockey team.) A Target containing a CVS and a Starbucks stand to the left across Lunt Avenue.
Staring straight ahead across Mannheim Road, you no longer see tiny Rosemont, but Des Plaines. The much larger suburb’s border includes a local-chain car wash, a Potbelly Sandwich Shop and another Starbucks.
The venue looks out of place in a neighborhood reminiscent of where Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues caused immeasurable damage fleeing the police. But of course, that was only cinema. The entertaining chaos here is more contained and certifiably safe for sentient beings and property.
While the games occupy the men of the hour two or three days a week, they and their off-ice counterparts team up to show the organization’s mom-and-pop side the rest of the time. When they are not treating their ticketholders to a product barely a step below the highest quality of hockey, they prove themselves anything but big-shot pretenders.
Well beyond their game abode, the Wolves share their wealth with Chicagoland. Their headquarters have always been in Glenview, alongside the Levin-owned DRL Enterprises. Their trusty pyro provider is still in Wood Dale, though has since added an L.A. office.
For the past 15 years, they have practiced at a two-sheet rink in Hoffman Estates, whose Sears Centre briefly housed a third local pro team. (The Chicago Hounds and Chicago Express mustered one season apiece in the UHL and ECHL, respectively.)
And the Wolves will go to any other zip code in or around Cook County for just about anything else when they have the time. Whether the host or the guest representing the club initiates the gathering is anyone’s guess.
Within two weeks of being swept from the first round of the 2018 playoffs, the Wolves got cracking on their milestone campaign. While most of the roster had dispersed, team representatives spent the four-month offseason pursuing 25 Acts of Service.
Mahoney’s department began drafting the special summer service series one month before it went into action. After starting on May 10, they had already chalked up 18 activities within the first three months.
In between, the suburbanites invaded the downtown last Monday to ceremoniously commence their season. The block party covered Michigan Avenue with 15 statue-size replicas of past Wolves goalie masks. They are scheduled to stay on display through the end of September.
Carnival games and photo ops with alumni like Cheveldayoff and enough players to fill a game-night roster dominated the day. After dusk, the festival culminated in a sneak peek at Strictly FX’s silver-anniversary edition of its pregame intro.
Darren Haydar, the captain of Chicago’s last Calder Cup team, was one of the blasts from the past soaking in the blasts of the future. Five years and five team changes (all overseas) removed from his last Wolves game, he tweeted last Tuesday, “Thanks for a great event and I look forward to checking in on the 25th season.”
“It’s quite rewarding that there’s still that camaraderie and affection for our organization,” Meyers remarked.
The day of the downtown festival coincided with the 19th of Act of Service. The Children’s Home & Aid social-service provider partnered with the club for fundamental hockey lessons. Beneficiaries of other projects include homeless shelters, summer camps, local and overseas food drives, active-duty soldiers and reading initiatives.
During the season, the educational undertaking gets more intimate. Quebecois players will visit advanced high-school French classes as guest lecturers. The goal is to establish fluency through hour-long conversation with a natural.
Three times in 2018-19, the team will bring younger students to an 11 a.m. game as a field trip. They have done the same before, and drawn approving stamps from teachers.
For that and many other offers, senior director of program development Stefanie Evans has secured Chicago the most group-ticket sales of any AHL Western Conference team six years running.
Four other Wolves front-office figures have hardware on their resume, including Mahoney. The AHL has recognized her for promoting the team, outstanding community relations and fan experience
“It’s tough,” Mahoney said. “You’re competing with a lot in Chicago. But also, there’s a lot you can do and a lot you can help out.
“We can see the impact we’re making, so it’s really close to home. It’s a privilege to have a job where you can do this stuff. We’re always asking, ‘What more can we do? How do we reach more people?’ It never stops. It’s why we’re here.”
The last decade’s downtown renaissance and its repercussions are additional proof of the Wolves’ exceptional viability. When the suburban franchise hit teenhood, the nearby NHL team enjoyed a wave of PR healing.
In 2007, the Blackhawks moved their AHL base to their home state for the first time, 77 miles west in Rockford. Justifiably hyped rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews both made the team out of training camp. Rocky Wirtz succeeded his late father as principal owner and promptly put home games on regional television.
The next year, Wirtz lured Foley back from the burbs to fill the long unused booth. Not even a week had passed since the Wolves won the 2008 Calder Cup when they lost their future Hall of Fame TV voice.
Over the ensuing decade, Joel Quenneville came in and coached the Kane/Toews core group to three Stanley Cups. Rockford has honed much of the supporting cast on those teams.
The Wolves have yet to hang up another banner in the meantime. But they are a tried-and-true, self-distinguishing Chicagoland institution. Even if they go 49 years between titles like the Blackhawks did, their seasoned leaders are confident their base will stick.
“My son growing up with the players, my wife. It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful time,” said Levin. “We look forward to even more.”