WENATCHEE — Bliss Littler is entering another year as coach at the junior hockey level, but there’s still a refreshing level of excitement as he prepares for another season.
Littler, the winningest coach in USA Hockey history, has plenty on his plate as he guides a mostly revamped Wenatchee Wild franchise through what will in all likelihood be a season that has its share of peaks and valleys.
On one hand, there’s no carryover from the roster he led to a Robertson Cup title game last spring. There are 23 new players in his outfit — many of whom are playing in the North American Hockey League for the first time. This alone gives the second-year coach plenty to work on, from imparting the intricacies of how to play in his up-tempo system to simply teaching his players how to conduct themselves during road trips.
But the massive overhaul on Littler’s bench is just a cog in the seismic shift that left the tenured bench boss and Wild fans alike fearing a hockey-less Wenatchee. When contract negotiations stalled between the previous Wild owner Bill Stewart and the Town Toyota Center, there was mounting concern whether Wenatchee would have a team to call its own. That worry escalated considerably when both sides ceased talks and Stewart announced the franchise’s relocation to Rio Grande Valley, Texas, in May, just one day after the Wild lost 5-0 against the Amarillo Bulls in the Robertson Cup championship.
It was a tumultuous time for the Wild fan base and Littler alike. The team pulled into the parking lot at the Town Toyota Center after the season finale, greeted by a cluster of supporters who had no idea what the future would hold. Meanwhile, Littler wasn’t sure if he would be following Stewart’s lead and leaving his newly adopted home to coach in Texas. But that uneasiness was short-lived. The Town Toyota Center board approved a contract to move the Fresno Monsters — another NAHL franchise — to Wenatchee and was able to keep the Wild name and logo.
There was a collective sigh of relief among Wild fans, many of whom loudly voiced their desire to keep NAHL-caliber hockey in Wenatchee, after the deal got done. There’s a sense of security and some optimism going into the 2013-14 season.
“They have the Wenatcee Wild here, they have the logo, they have the name,” Littler said. “We have an owner with a greater wherewithal to run the Wenatchee Wild long-term, so I think once people realized that, I think there’s been a lot of excitement all summer. Tell you what, it’s been fun coming into work.”
The team’s home opener today against the Minot Minotauros will be a welcome homecoming for a retooled franchise that almost departed entirely. And the community — at least in regards to season ticket holders and corporate sponsors — seems to be behind the Wild 100 percent. But getting to this point was no cakewalk for the Wild’s front office.
The Wild’s West
One of Wild owner David White’s first moves after staking territory in Wenatchee (even before locking up Littler) was to re-hire Don West — the Wild’s director of sales and marketing and former television personality — who started working for the franchise in 2012.
Since accepting the position, West, alongside a full-time front office staff of four, has led an all-hands-on-deck crusade to keep the Wild a fixture in the community. That task, which included constant contact with fans, was an on-going effort with plenty of 60-hour work weeks.
West and company, who rolled up their sleeves in early June, were about three months behind schedule when they started. To make matters worse, they didn’t have a working list of season ticket holders and weren’t sure what to expect from sponsors.
“It was a tidal wave,” West said of the workload. “It was just incredible.”
To West’s surprise, he didn’t have to rebuild from the ground up.
Most sponsors were receptive to West and made it clear they intended to continue working with the tier-II hockey franchise.
“I would say 90 percent of the sponsors from last year immediately let me know that yes, they wanted to come back,” West said.
West used just about every form of media to reach out to fans and has had a bevy of season ticket holders shuffling in and out of his office on a daily basis, buzzing with anticipation, since the new franchise’s arrival.
West believes the lack of drop-off in support is a testament to the community’s faith, but believes things wouldn’t have gone so smooth if the Wild had dropped down a notch in competition or weren’t able to retain the team name and logo.
“We had some initial concerns, as did everybody,” said Al Samow, the general manager of AG Supply Company, one of several local businesses that continued its partnership with the Wild. “Was there going to be a team? Was there going to be a new team? All those things. I guess we took a wait-and-see attitude. After it became apparent the Wild name would stay and the coach was staying and the former employees were staying, we thought everything was going to be OK.”
Reasons for optimism
The Wild seem to be on track for long-term sustainability, thanks in part to the community’s unwavering support. Littler is optimistic going forward, given White’s early signs of interest in nurturing the franchise to new levels.
“(White) doesn’t want to go backwards, he wants to take the next step. He wants us to get better,” Littler said. “He recognizes that things were awful good here. Every time I talk to him he wants to exceed all the expectations in the past and all the things we’ve done in the past. He wants to make things better, and as a coach, that’s refreshing. Most of the time owners are trying to take things away — it’s all about increasing their bottom line.”
Littler is quick to credit Stewart for all his efforts in bringing the Wild to this point. After all, Stewart brought Wenatchee an entertaining product that hasn’t posted a losing season in its five years of existence. But there was an uneasy tension in the Town Toyota Center for much of Littler’s inaugural season as coach.
“It’s unfortunate how their (the Stewart’s and Town Toyota Center’s) relationship ended here,” Littler said. “They probably never get the credit they deserve for all the good things that happened. But sometimes relationships just don’t work and at the end of the day, that one wasn’t working.”
With White running the show, there’s a breath of enthusiasm and a camaraderie between the Wild and Town Toyota Center personnel that wasn’t there during the last days of Stewart’s tenure.
West, Littler and White all voiced appreciation for the Town Toyota Center staff’s hard work during the whirlwind off-season. It probably helped that White set a precedent with the contract he signed, which was equal to what the board offered Stewart before the relocation.
But the side-by-side business model was a boon in the rebuilding process and could mean a bright future for the entities’ working relationship.
“It’s vitally important to not have an adversarially relationship (with Town Toyota Center personnel),” White said. “That’s our home.”
Hitting the road
While there are plenty of positives surrounding the Wild franchise as it prepares to hit the home ice for the first time since May, there are still some unresolved issues that don’t have an answer in sight.
Most notably, the Wild are more than 1,400 miles from their nearest divisional opponent. They are the only west coast team in the continental United States and aren’t within bus range of any opponent in the NAHL.
Wenatchee pays to bring in all of its opponents — except Kenai River and Fairbanks — to fly into Wenatchee.
“The real issues are still the issues that Bill and Carla (Stewart) had,” Littler said, referring to travel expenses. “Those issues haven’t gone away.”
Littler said the NAHL needs to expand its footprint in the west in order for the Wild to have a long-term future in the league.
White echoed that sentiment and said he is “continuously” working on a solution with the league, although there is “no short-term solution” in sight.
While the traveling arrangements aren’t ideal for the Wild, holding on to an NAHL franchise was a clear victory for the community members vested in retaining a hockey franchise to call their own.
There will be issues as long as the Wild are geographically isolated from the rest of the league. The incumbent Wild 2.0 roster, made up primarily of inexperienced players, will probably face its fair share of adversity this season as it works to adjust to the NAHL.
But through everything — the tumultuous offseason, the uncertain future and the labor-intensive rebuilding process that followed — hockey is here to stay in Wenatchee, and that’s a good starting point.
“I couldn’t be more happy about getting a chance to raise my kids here and come to work every day in a great building, good city,” Littler said. “Couldn’t be more happy.”