The Chicago Wolves will open the 2021-22 American Hockey League (AHL) season Saturday night at the Allstate Arena. The stadium in suburban Rosemont, IL, has been home to the Wolves for 26 of their 27 seasons, with the lone exception being last season. Due to the COVID pandemic, the Wolves played their home games at their practice rink instead of inside an empty arena. Tonight will be their first home game in 587 days.
The last time the team was on home ice was on March 8, 2020, they were still the AHL affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Ryan Warsofsky was the head coach of the Charlotte Checkers. Now, the Wolves and Carolina Hurricanes have partnered up, and Warsofsky is entering his second season behind their bench. This will be the first season with just players from the Hurricanes organization, as the Wolves also took on players from the Nashville Predators last season after the Milwaukee Admirals opted out of the 2020-21 season.
Warsofsky Takes it One Day at a Time
I learned very quickly covering the Wolves remotely last season that Warsofsky takes things one day at a time. He focuses on what he can control at that moment and how he can improve himself and his team. His mantra is always working as hard as you can right now to bet better tomorrow. It’s hard to argue with that philosophy as the Wolves won the AHL Central Division with a 21-9-1-2 record.
“We did our best last year to get into our routine and how we approached our game days,” Warsofsky said in a video call with local media earlier this week. “It was definitely a challenge. It was a little bit different. Obviously, it’s not a full bowl around with the stands. The boards are as forgiving, that’s for sure. We tried to do our best. We made it work.”
This year he can focus solely on the needs of the Hurricanes and the players he is responsible for getting to the next level.
“It’s been better, that’s for sure,” he said about the preseason. “We made it work last year. We had most of our guys in camp in Carolina, so they know what the expectations are from the whole organization. They know how both teams play; it’s very similar. I think that has been really important. It’s been a seamless transition, and we don’t have to get another organization up to speed.”
Same Building, New Bench
Tonight will be the first game for Warsofsky as the Wolves head coach at the Allstate Arena. However, he has very fond memories of the building. The last time he was there was June 8, 2019, as an assistant coach, when the Checkers beat the Wolves in Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals. He celebrated a championship victory on the ice that he now calls home.
Warsofsky will head to the home locker room when he arrives today and move over behind the other bench. This is a night that a lot of people have been looking forward to.
“We’re all excited, from the coaching staff to the players to the support staff,” he said about opening night. “Everyone’s put a lot of work to get back in front of our fans. I’m excited to get behind the bench in front of the fans and hopefully put a good product on the ice – a winning product.”
While Warsofsky gets used to his new home arena, he also stressed just how important heading out for real road trips again will be. Last season, due to AHL COVID protocol, teams got right back on the bus and headed home after most road games. This season will include more traditional overnight stays and travel.
“It’s really important for us to come together,” he said. “To get on the road and get away from distractions. Guys are moving into new homes and apartments. Families are coming to town. It’s important that we get to know each other and our teammates. For our coaching staff, to know our own players. We are having meetings all day long to get to know them and what makes them tick. The best thing for us to do is to get out on the road, at times, and get them together for team meals. It’s going to be important that we do those things.”
Wolves Will Be Tough to Beat Again
The Wolves lost key players from last season’s team who were part of the Predators’ organization, like Tanner Jeannot and Phil Tomasino. However, they are bringing back 10 players from the Central Division championship, including leading goal scorer David Cotton. They also added veteran Andrew Poturalski, who led the AHL with 34 assists and 43 points last season with the San Diego Gulls. He was quickly named captain for the season, the Wolves first since 2017.
“We have a deep forward group,” said Warsofsky. “What I like is that we have competition. We have competition for being in the lineup and for ice time. For some guys, their practices are going to be their games. We’ve got to see it in practice that they want to play in a game and be trusted with ice time. We’ve got a little bit of everything. We’ve got some really good experience. We have some young prospects who have taken some steps. I love our guys. They all bring something different.
“On the backend we have a lot of experience. We have a good deep defense corp. It all looks good on paper, and everyone is loving it, but if we don’t play together as a team, it doesn’t matter if we have Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. We have to make sure from Saturday night on, we are playing together and for each other.”
Related – AHL Central News: 2021-22 Season Preview
The Wolves will welcome in the Rockford IceHogs tonight, ironically the team who played the last home game at the Allstate Arena. Last night, they lost their season opener 6-1 at the Grand Rapids Griffins, so they will be coming in as a motivated squad.
“We need to make sure we’re ready with our pace of play,” Warsofsky said of opening night. “It’s going to be super-fast and physical. It’s going to have a bit of a playoff atmosphere to it with the fans back in the building. Again, we have guys who haven’t played in the building yet. It’s going to be important that our start is on time and we’re playing fast. We’re stressing to our guys all week what was last year is not going to be the same. We need to make sure we’re prepared for that. We can preach to them all we want, but until the experience it, it’s going to be different.”
As the old saying goes, “You can’t win them all without winning the first one,” and Warsofsky wants to do just that. He wants to win all 76 games this season. However, he is not quick to say his team is focused on the big prize just yet.
“Everyone wants to go out and win a championship,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal, no question about it. I’m pretty competitive, and I want to win every single game. We haven’t talked about winning a Calder Cup yet just because it’s so far away. We need to put in the work each day to get there. It’s going to be a long process. Everyone knows in the locker room that’s the goal when you see the history of this organization and the championships they’ve won. For me to go in there on day one and say we want to win a Calder Cup, I don’t think it needs to be said. It’s what this organization is all about.”
The long journey begins tonight for the Wolves. It takes a determined mindset to handle the ups and downs of an AHL season, and Chicago has the right man for the job.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.