WENATCHEE — When it came to finding a new coach, the Wenatchee Wild went right to the top of junior hockey’s win list.
Bliss Littler, the winningest coach in USA Hockey Junior A Tier I and Tier II history, was announced as the Wild’s new head coach and director of hockey operations on Wednesday.
Littler replaces former head coach John Becanic, who resigned on April 2, the day after the Wild were eliminated from the NAHL postseason. Becanic was 36-17-7 in 1 1/2 seasons with the Wild and led them to two Robertson Cup Playoffs appearances.
Littler has amassed 577 wins in 19 years as a junior hockey head coach and general manager, including a 326-210-59 record in the United States Hockey League. He was the eighth coach in USHL history to hit the 300-win mark.
“He has a winning heritage everywhere he goes, and I know we’ve got a coach that will take us to the next level,” said Bill Stewart, the Wild’s president and managing partner. “For all of his success, he’s a very humble person and very committed to helping kids succeed. He impressed me as a person who would take the hockey organization side, and I won’t have to worry about it. … And his contacts are absolutely invaluable. He knows every college coach and NHL scout around.”
Littler, 45, said he is impressed with the foundation Wenatchee has in place.
“I was looking for a situation that hockey-wise would be very good, and has an ownership group that is very good,” said Littler. “Junior jobs, college jobs, pro jobs — there’s not a lot out there, and even fewer good jobs. I consider Wenatchee one of the good jobs. … Everything I’ve heard and seen about Wenatchee is that it’s one of those programs that gives you a chance to be successful.”
Littler last coached the USHL’s Omaha (Neb.) Lancers, where he also served as general manager. He led the Lancers to a 117-60-22 record in just over three seasons. He was fired 19 games into their 60-game season in late November 2011.
Previously, Littler coached the USHL’s Tri-City (Neb.) Storm from 2003 to 2008, and Topeka (Kan.) ScareCrows from 2001 to 2003. He coached the Storm to the Anderson Cup, which the USHL awards to the team with the best regular season record, in 2003-04.
Littler also has international experience, having served as an assistant coach on the 2008 and 2011 U.S. Junior Select Teams. The 2008 team captured gold at the World Junior A Challenge, while the 2011 team won bronze. He was also an assistant for the 1997 and 2000 gold medal-winning USA 19-and-under squads, and was head coach of the 2002 19-and-under team.
His coaching career started in 1989 as as assistant for his hometown Minot (N.D.) Americans in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. His first head coaching job was with the American Frontier Hockey League’s Billings (Mont.) Bulls in 1993. He coached the Bulls until 2000, winning five Borne Cups and four regular season titles.
The Wild job marks Littler’s first return to the greater Pacific Northwest since his time with the Bulls.
“I’ve always said that if Billings had a USHL team, there’d be a fistfight for me to go back there. I loved coaching in that area,” Littler said. “I have two young children — a seven-year-old boy (Cade) and five-year-old daughter (Grace) — so it was important to live in a good city, and also one that has some hockey for my son to play.”
Littler has coached 102 Division-I players and 22 NHL draft picks, including first-rounders Louis Leblanc (2009, Montreal) and Patrick White (2007, Vancouver).
Littler expects to put an entertaining team on the ice.
“The kids will get up the ice, the defense will be in on the rush, we’ll be physical and be very entertaining to watch. But first and foremost we’ll be accountable in all three zones,” he said.
Stewart said he feels lucky to have Littler on board, especially after a plane ticket snafu nearly derailed their first meeting.
“When he first submitted his resume I didn’t take it real serious, because I didn’t think we could work out the terms of a contract to hire a coach with his background and resume. But I was very interested,” Stewart said. “I asked him to meet me at the Robertson Cup in Texas, so I bought him a plane ticket, but it was under the name Bliss Stewart and they wouldn’t let him on the plane because it was the wrong name. He drove 10 hours and spent a day and a half with me in Dallas, and I was very impressed and glad I didn’t screw it up by putting the wrong name on the ticket.”
Littler has already starting introducing himself to the Wild’s returning players and 14 tenders.
“I want to reassure them that they are wanted here and I can’t wait to work with them,” he said. “I’ve given the list (of players) to some other coaches and scouts, and they tell me it’s a very good list. They have done a good job with what they have returning and with their tenders.”
Littler, his wife Gretchen and their two children plan to move to the Wenatchee area this summer from Omaha.
West down to four
The Wenatchee Wild will be part of a four-team NAHL West Division in 2012-13 after the Dawson Creek Rage ceased operations and the Alaska Avalanche moved to Pennsylvania to become the Johnstown Tomahawks. The three other remaining members of the division are the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, Kenai River Brown Bears and Fresno Monsters.
To help make up for the void in the teams home schedules, each of the four teams are adding more games against teams from the east coast.
“I think we’re all scheduling eight or 10 home games against out-of-division opponents,” Stewart said.
Stewart said the NAHL has made progress in looking for a home for a possible new West Division franchise in Southern California, but not in any market within a six-hour bus ride of Wenatchee.
“(A team in Southern California) may help us a little bit,” Stewart said. “The league commisioner (Mark Frankenfeld) and myself have turned over every rock trying to get teams in Yakima, Vancouver, Bellingham… There’s just not an appetite to build a new facility in those areas.”