Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Playoff Hockey Never Left Chicago, a Primer on the Wolves

Even though the Chicago Blackhawks have completely emerged from the “Dark Ages” under Bill Wirtz, many do not know that for 20 years now Chicago has had a second major league hockey team.  The Chicago Wolves (who, despite their name, play in Rosemont) are a team in the American Hockey League, originally from the International Hockey League, who started play in 1994.

Ok, what are the American and International Hockey Leagues?
Well, the Wolves’ original league, the International Hockey League (IHL) was founded in 1945 as a minor hockey league, eventually getting on par with the American Hockey League (AHL) (more on that league later).  By the mid-1990s, the league had started placing teams (like the Wolves, as well as teams in Detroit, Denver, LA and San Francisco) in NHL markets.  The NHL didn’t like that.  Not one bit.  So, most, if not all, NHL teams that had affiliations with IHL teams (thereby giving the IHL teams nice subsidized players that they didn’t have to pay for) moved their affiliations to the AHL, which knew its place.
Due to that, as well as the rapid expansion itself, the IHL eventually collapsed in 2001.  Six teams were absorbed into the AHL.  Three of those teams (the Wolves, the Milwaukee Admirals, and the Grand Rapids Griffins) are still in their original place, and are coincidentally divisional rivals.  The other three teams all moved for one reason or another (the Manitoba Moose had to move once the Winnipeg Jets moved into the building, the Houston Aeros lost their lease, and the Utah Grizzlies were sold).
Now, the AHL has been the primary minor league for the NHL since roughly its inception.  As such, it’s usually a showcase for young talented hockey players, and keeps up a good level of competition itself.  Some people have said it’s about the second best hockey league in the world, or at least close to the KHL in terms of quality.  But what needs to be said and taken away here is that all the AHL teams are the top affiliates of NHL teams.  Basically it’s the hockey equivalent to AAA teams in baseball.

How common is it for an AHL team to be in the same market as an NHL one?
Pretty uncommon.  Depending on your definition of “market”, there’s as few as two (Chicago and Toronto, who’s AHL team plays in a different rink in the city of Toronto) to as many as a dozen (the northeast is densely packed with AHL teams, and the markets could conceivably be considered part of the New York or Boston “markets”.  But as far as teams billed from the same town as an NHL team, just Chicago and Toronto.

Ok, so the Wolves are the Blackhawks top farm team? So we’ll see future Hawks stars like Teuvo Teravainen for the Wolves?
Well, no.  Due to a long and complicated history between the two franchises, as well as some timing issues with affiliation contract lengths, the Blackhawks affiliate isn’t the Wolves.  The Blackhawks players play for the AHL team in Rockford, the IceHogs, who didn’t make the playoffs this year (possibly because the Hawks took their goalie as a backup to Crawford).
The Wolves are, as of this year, the St. Louis Blues affiliate, after two awkward seasons with the Vancouver Canucks.  When the Wolves came into the AHL, they were the Atlanta Thrashers affiliate, but True North (the owners of the then Manitoba Moose) bought the Thrashers, moved the Moose to St. Johns, and made them the Jets affiliate, which left the Wolves and Canucks without an affiliation, leading to the joining of those two.

Well, you said in your lede that the “playoff hockey never left”, so what have the Wolves done?
An excellent question, person who writes these questions.  In each of their 7 seasons in the IHL before it folded, the Wolves made the playoffs, winning 2 of a possible 5 division titles, 3 of 7 conference titles, and 2 Turner Cups (the IHL’s playoff championship trophy).
Since coming into the AHL in 2001, in 13 seasons, the Wolves have made the playoffs 9 times, winning 5 division titles (including this year), and 3 conference titles.  And oh yeah, they’ve got two Calder Cup victories to go with the Turner Cups.
I’ll just lay this out, in 19 completed seasons, the Wolves have won 4 league championships, and have never been below .500 to end a season.
That’s pretty darn good.

Enough of a history lesson, can I get some vital details about when/where the Wolves play??
Indeed you can, mystery person that totally isn’t me.  The Wolves home games are played at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, on Mannheim Road, just off Interstate 90.  But if you’re coming from the city, you can take the Blue Line to the Rosemont stop, and at every Wolves game, there’s a PACE bus to and from the arena, so you don’t even have to have a car (also there’s a Culver’s across the street, which is always yummy).
As for when the games are, most AHL games take place on weekends, and it’s not uncommon (especially in the West, where teams are far more spread out) to see two teams play each other back to back in the same building.  Of course, if you can’t get out to Rosemont, and you live in the Chicago area, all the games are televised on the U Too, which is an over the air station, so even if you’ve cut the cord, you can watch the Wolves.

So what’s the situation now for the Wolves?
Well, the Wolves made the playoffs, winning the Midwest division on the last day (though they were mathematically clinched for a spot), arguably on the back of the AHL’s best goalie Jake Allen (who may not return to Chicago next year, with both of St. Louis’ goalies having their contracts expire).  The Wolves then dispatched the Rochester (NY) Americans 3 games to 1 in the first round (the first round of AHL playoff series is a best of 5).
Now they’re playing the aforementioned Toronto Marlies, the Leafs affiliate team.  The series has not gone particularly well, meaning the Wolves lost games 1 and 2 at home by scores of 5-2 and 4-2, respectively.  The series now heads to Toronto, for games 3-5 (to minimize travel costs, AHL playoff series have as little as possible, in this case a 2-3-2 series).  If Chicago can win 2 games north of the border, games 6 and 7 will be at home on Monday and Wednesday, May 19 and 21 (which completely blows apart the “schedule for weekends” thing)

So if they do make it, how expensive is it to go to a game, anyway?
Not very, playoff tickets start at just $25 for a pretty large swath of the stadium, and heck, my dad, his girlfriend and I went to game 2 for under $150 for the three of us.  That’s ludicrously cheap, about as much as one seat for a Blackhawks playoff game.
So yeah, tickets are not very expensive, and they’re cheaper during the regular season.

But Sean, I want something exciting with my hockey, like fireworks, or hell, just plain fire would work for me.
Hooboy, have I got something to show you, mysterious person that isn’t me feeding myself softball questions so I can show this.

There you go buddy, fireworks AND fire.

And a mascot that shoots fireworks out of his hands.
So what are you guys waiting for?  I'm giving you fireworks, hockey, and fire, what more could you ask for?

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