On Sep. 20, 2018, the Iowa Wild were weeks away from commencing their sixth season in Des Moines. But that night, it wasn’t the AHL squad who packed Wells Fargo Arena to capacity. Those fans were there to take in an NHL preseason game featuring the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.
Even if the Wild faithful wanted a better result than a 3-2 loss, the organization — including Iowa Wild President and Minnesota Wild VP of Marketing Todd Frederickson — were beaming with pride. The Wild’s AHL affiliate had just signed a new five-year lease extension with the building, and hosting a preseason NHL game was vindication for everyone involved. After years of grinding to put down roots in Iowa’s capital city, Des Moines was finally a Hockey Town.
“It literally felt like [a] celebration that hockey was going to work long-term in Des Moines,” Frederickson recalled. “I remember we all kinda sat back with a big smile on our face, and we said, ‘What a great hockey market Des Moines is, and it’s here, and it’s here to stay.’”
A record crowd of 14,282 poured into the Wells Fargo Arena, nestled in between downtown Des Moines and the Des Moines River. That figure remains the largest attendance for a hockey game in the state of Iowa.
Now, four seasons removed from that magical day, the Iowa Wild plan to pay tribute to all the hard work that led to this moment. This season marks the tenth anniversary of the Iowa Wild, and this coming season is one of the most highly anticipated in their history.
A HOCKEY LEGACY LEFT BEHIND
The Iowa Wild were created out of necessity. Things fell apart for the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros. Talks to renew the lease at the Toyota Center hit an impasse during the 2012-13 season. Les Alexander, the owner of the Houston Rockets, demanded a 550% rent increase as part of the negotiations. It’s a price that Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the Minnesota Wild, and the Aeros couldn’t pay and continue to operate competitively.
The Aeros went 40-36-5-5 that final year, losing to the Grand Rapids Griffins in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Ask those around the team, and they’ll tell you the tension of losing their home lingered all year.
“It was definitely a pretty unique year,” remembers Minnesota Wild play-by-play announcer Joe O’Donnell, who was then Houston’s Director of Broadcasting and Team Services. “As a staff, we knew that the Toyota Center lease was expiring at the end of the year. You were obviously hopeful something would be worked out.”
The NHL’s lockout during the 2012-13 season applied even more pressure to the situation. Operating expenses for each club were at the front of the minds of league owners. Craig Leipold was no different. As the season moved along, staying in Houston was no longer viable, despite drawing the league’s seventh-highest average attendance each night.
“Definitely bittersweet, because Houston had such a great tradition in hockey,” O’Donnell intimated. “The Aeros were well-received there by the hockey fans. They obviously had a legacy of hockey that was left behind.”
DESTINATION: DES MOINES
Ultimately, the Wild needed to find a new home for their AHL affiliate. Simplifying player movement was one of the main priorities the Wild focused on during their search. ”When you talk about taking the flight from Houston to Chicago to St. Paul to get a player up, that’s a lot of movement,” Frederickson explained. The ease of shuttling prospects to and from Des Moines was incredibly attractive to the team. “We were looking for locations that were more geographically aligned with St. Paul… but Des Moines is only a three-and-a-half hour shot from St. Paul with an incredible arena that had previously hosted American League Hockey in the mid-2000s.”
Unfortunately, the Wild faced quite a challenge in winning over the city and the fans. Des Moines was once home to the Iowa Stars (Dallas), and the Iowa Chops (Anaheim). But both AHL clubs eventually relocated, even after signing a 30-year lease to play home games in Wells Fargo Arena. The city and fanbase felt betrayed by the AHL after clubs promised big things before.
However, Wells Fargo Arena was just the building the organization was looking for. “You had this beautiful facility in Des Moines just sitting there with an incredible locker room facility to the level — to the highest level — of what you’d expect in the American Hockey League,” Frederickson explained.
O’Donnell continued, “I think I’d put it up there against even the teams that play in NHL buildings. Sometimes if you’re a team that’s second fiddle within the building, maybe your locker room space isn’t as big. Maybe you don’t get as many amenities. Sure, you’re in an NHL building, but then you’ve got to fill up all those seats as well.”
The arena was the perfect fit. The city of Des Moines offered an increased level of accessibility for the whole organization. Players could move up and down between St. Paul and Des Moines with relative ease. Executives and scouts could come and go freely. “It just became a natural fit for us,” Frederickson said.
It also became apparent how easy it was to get around to the rest of the Western Conference of the AHL. “Des Moines is such a centrally located city that I don’t think you realize until you get there,” O’Donnell described. “You’re two hours, tops, to Omaha. You’re five to Chicago, six to St. Louis. You could be in the Twin Cities in three and a half. I don’t think a lot of people realize that, in not even a half day of driving, you can get to a few major spots.”
While the location is ideal for traveling to Central Division rivals Milwaukee, Rockford, Manitoba, or Chicago, they still get to play teams in the Pacific Division. San Jose, Colorado, San Diego, and Henderson all come through Iowa. “Coachella Valley, the new farm team for the Seattle Kraken is coming to town. The variation of teams at the AHL level is fun for our fans to see,” Frederickson added.
“We Had To Show We Would Do Things The Right Way”
It was a long run-up to the first puck drop in their new home. Aeros head coach John Torchetti moved on to coach the KHL following the team’s last game in Houston. Iowa needed to find a new head coach. Plus, aside from the players on contract, they didn’t have any real ideas on the shape of the roster.
“There’s something that’s kinda special about the first year for a franchise,” O’Donnell said. “That first summer, there was maybe, I don’t know, five of us at the most that were on staff from Day 1. We’re working on folding tables in a conference room as the offices are still being built. The team really hadn’t been formed for the most part yet.”
In July, the Wild named Kurt Kleinendorst the first head coach in Iowa Wild history. He was a Minnesota native that had previously coached the Alabama-Huntsville University team and was tasked with developing the Wild’s draft picks.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of winning in those first years. “There were never seasons where they were like, ‘ugh, we just missed it,’ or ‘oh, if we only would have won this game,’” current play-by-play voice and Director of Team Services Ben Gislason said. “They were done by March most of the tenure of the franchise at that point.” That’s a big enough hurdle to clear for any franchise, let alone one starting out in a new market. Double that when the local fan base had already been hurt twice before.
There was work to be done with the fan base as well. “I think initially there was some hesitation,” remembers O’Donnell. “We knew that going in, as an organization, that there were some battles that had to be won. That’s just from the standpoint that AHL hockey had been there before and kind of left on a sour note. So we knew we had to get out in the community and make an impact.”
O’Donnell knew that trust had to be built because life as an AHL fan isn’t always easy in the best of times. “[We needed to] show people we weren’t going to leave in a year, or two, or three – show them that we were going to do things the right way. Then we can show them what American Hockey League hockey was all about.
“It’s a tough league to sell because your best players, when they are playing well, aren’t there for very long. That’s cool for the hardcore hockey fan to say, ‘Oh, I saw, you know, pick-your-prospect,’ but for the season ticket holder that wants the team to win, and somebody coming to every game, a lot of times that can be frustrating when the team doesn’t look the same in April that it did at the start of the season.”
The team made it a priority for the games to be fun and enjoyable for families and hockey fans across central Iowa. “You’re asking folks to spend their hard-earned money with you, and our whole approach is to make it an enjoyable night out,” Frederickson explained. “But part of that is also treating our fans to as [close to a] major league professional experience as they could possibly get. That’s deeply important to us.”
“Everything we do has to be an NHL product, but it’s happening in an AHL building and with an AHL team,” Gislason expanded. “If we do that, we think we’re only going to continue to grow our brand, our fan base, and give our fans what they deserve. And that’s a fantastic product.”
“Getting Sticks in Kids’ Hands”
The Iowa Wild staff made it a point to build the fan base through grassroots initiatives and having a presence in the community. Winning over the fans would take creating an enjoyable experience at Wells Fargo. To win over the city, though, the organization needed to be good citizens and business partners in the community.
The work to cultivate fans started almost immediately upon arrival. One of their first community-building initiatives was the Community Rinks Program. This program creates a pop-up, non-refrigerated ice rink at local parks around the city of Des Moines and surrounding communities. It’s very simple: If you want to make somewhere a hockey hub, make spaces for hockey.
“You see them all over Minnesota, almost in every community park,” Frederickson explained. “We wanted to create that same atmosphere down here in Des Moines. Iowa is sandwiched between these really cool hockey states. From South Dakota to North Dakota, to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois… all really strong hockey markets. Iowa has always been this little void. We’ve had USHL hockey in Iowa for years and years and years. But from a youth standpoint, there’s just not a ton of rinks for them to play the game.”
To this day, the Community Rinks Program remains one of the most successful in terms of getting people introduced to the game. “We now have donated 12 of those rinks in and around the Des Moines metro that allow people to go out and skate in a safe environment,” says Frederickson.
The team also has a successful Healthy Living Floor Hockey program. With corporate partners, the team donates floor hockey equipment and Iowa Wild jerseys to elementary schools around the Des Moines metro. Instructors of the program have created whole curriculums around it. One even stated that outside of the motor skills and introduction of the game to young people, “We’ve incorporated the use of maps showing the locations of the different NHL hockey teams to teach social studies skills of both the United States and Canada.”
“It’s just been a great way to get sticks in the hands of kids as soon as we can,” Frederickson said. “We have a belief that if we can put that Iowa Wild jersey on the kids, it’s their first hockey jersey. So it translates into them being Iowa Wild fans, and eventually on to being Minnesota Wild fans too. I would imagine the percentage [is high] of people that reflect back on their childhood that the first jersey they ever put on is the team they are still affiliated with to this day later in their life.”
The grassroots community programs have been huge for the organization. But it goes past that. The team is a constant presence at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market. They’ve packed over 173,000 meals to date for children in the Des Moines public schools as part of the Tame the Hunger initiative. For LGBTQ+ Pride night, the team donates portions of ticket proceeds to Pride organizations in Des Moines. The “Split the Pot” raffle that happens at every Iowa Wild home game donates money to Adaptive Sports Iowa, which caters programs to people with physical or visual disabilities.
“They say good community relations get you through tough times, and we believe that, right?” Frederickson surmised. “For the most part, Iowa is a bit of an ‘up for grabs’ state. Fans are pointed in many different directions in all sports, not just hockey. So it’s a great opportunity for us to cultivate a lot of Minnesota Wild fans in Iowa.”
They also focused on attracting visitors from north of the border to the city. “We put a lot of initiatives in place to grow the Minnesota Wild fan base,” Frederickson explained. “Now, on a regular basis, we see not only Iowa Wild fans, and people from Iowa traveling up to Minnesota to see games. We’ll have regular [Minnesota] fans coming down spending the weekend in Des Moines — it’s a great city — to check out the prospects.”
The Iowa Wild are no longer battling for establishment in the community. People know about the team. They recognize the efforts made by the club. “We’ve become a leader in the sporting community, and we’re a beacon of sorts to other sports organizations in Des Moines,” Gislason explained. “We are looked upon. People look at how we do things. People look at how we market. People look at how we run our business, and it starts from the top. Todd Frederickson set a remarkable standard early in this organization’s history.”
“We want to win the Calder cup”
On Tuesday, Iowa will host a Minnesota Wild open practice. It’s quite exciting for the fans of Iowa, who now get to see the NHL club up close and personal. And there are names they’ll recognize on the roster. Marco Rossi and Calen Addison made Minnesota out of training camp and look to have graduated from Iowa. Matt Boldy will be back in town, as well as Connor Dewar and Brandon Duhaime. Others like Matt Dumba, Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek are Iowa alumni.
“You want to talk about the synergy between an NHL club and the AHL affiliate?!” Frederickson exclaimed. “It’s really just a great way to say ‘thank you’ to the fans of Des Moines for their support over our first 10 seasons.”
“I think it’s huge to have what the Wild have right now,” O’Donnell said. “It takes a couple of things. It takes management and ownership to believe in the AHL.”
“When I get [Bill] Guerin in front of a camera or on a broadcast, I’ll ask him why the Iowa Wild are important,” Gislason commented. “He doesn’t just give lip service. He means it. He knows the value of the American Hockey League. He saw it when he was with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and what those teams did to help fuel the Pittsburgh Penguins. … He’s brought that to Minnesota.”
On Friday, Wells Fargo Arena will welcome fans for the opening game of the Wild’s 10th season. After a tough start, they’re turning things around on the ice. After making the playoffs in 2018-19 for the first time, they saw COVID disrupt the next two seasons, then narrowly missed the postseason last year. Now stocked with talent, the team is determined to make the postseason once again. They hope to fill the building with 10,000 screaming Iowa Wild fans yet again, now that it’s the first ‘normal’ year since COVID hit.
“We want to win the Calder Cup,” Gislason declared. “I mean, these are the things we’re talking about now, which at the beginning of this tenure ten years ago, we were the new kid on the block.”
This year will be a celebration of the hard work that’s gone on for the last decade. There will be appearances by alumni, and renewed access to the team through multiple platforms like never before. Iowa has had a rich hockey tradition with minor teams and junior-level teams scattered throughout. But when the lights come back on in Wells Fargo Center, it’ll shine on perhaps the youngest, most skilled they’ve ever hosted.
It took ten years of grinding to get to this point, but they’ve stayed committed to the community above all. Gislason looks at where they were, and where they are now, and can’t help but feel a sense of pride in the organization’s accomplishments. “I can only imagine some of the people that had been there from the beginning, and when they finally get a second to sit back and look around, they’ll go, ‘This is hockey in Des Moines.’”