By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
Perhaps no team in the NAHL continues to demonstrate an atmosphere of success on and off the ice as the Wenatchee Wild. Since entering the NAHL back in 2008, the Wild has not only been one of the most competitive teams in the league, but also one of its most successful at the box office and support from the community. Those trends continued last season as Wenatchee again led the league in average attendance, averaging 3,339 fans per game and almost 100,000 fans for the entire season.
The success on the ice was once again on display as the Wild would again make a serious run at the West Division title and Robertson Cup. They started hot from the beginning of the season winning 10 of their first 13 games. Surprisingly as the Wild hit late October and into November, the team cooled down and the winning started to become sporadic. In a particular 12 game stretch, the Wild won just three times including a stretch of going winless in six straight. The Wild organization recognized that they needed a spark to get the season back on track and head in a new direction, so enter veteran head coach John Becanic, who had extensive coaching experience at the major junior and NAHL levels.
Although it had been eight years since his last stint in the NAHL, Becanic said that returning as a head coach in the league was something he looked forward to. “The league has so much more opportunity now for players and that is such a positive thing. When I coached previously in the NAHL, the league had 11 teams and to see that almost tripled was quite remarkable,” said Becanic. Getting Wenatchee back on the winning side of things became priority #1 for Becanic. “For me it was setting a foundation of hard work and good work ethic. It is what I wanted the Wenatchee Wild to be known for,” said Becanic. “We may have not had the talent that some of the other teams had, so we had to create an environment and a culture that was conducive to the players we had on the roster.”
The winning resumed and the Wild found themselves in the thick of the Western Division race with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, whom they would eventually meet in the West Finals in the playoffs after an opening round sweep of the Alaska Avalanche. The Wild took one of three games in Fairbanks and then headed back to Wenatchee for potentially the final two games. However, the Ice Dogs won Game 4 in overtime to send them to the Robertson Cup where they eventually won the National Championship. “Fairbanks was a very good team and I believe the best team won, but I was very proud of what we accomplished and it certainly gave all of a positive feeling heading into the 2011-12 season,” said Becanic.
So the Wild enter the 2011-12 season with Becanic able to make the personnel decisions and able to build a team that can finally win a Robertson Cup Championship. Becanic said he had to rebuild his entire defense, as Kyle Huson remains the only returner on the blueline and a team captain this year. “We first and foremost wanted to find players with the right character, mentality and interested in being the right type of people. I wanted players who are loyal and bought into a team first concept,” said Becanic.
Wenatchee will have a significant veteran presence up front with the return of Air Force recruits Blake Saylor and Ben Carey, both of whom will also be team captains. Shawn Pauley is another returning forward that will be looked upon for some leadership and scoring as he enters his third season with the Wild. “I told all these captains that the success of the Wild this season is going to be theirs, not mine,” said Becanic. “They are going to be the ones that hold themselves and their teammates accountable, but it is a great group of leaders and has us very excited about where this team is headed.”
Backstopping the Wild this season will be veteran goalie Greg Lewis, who was acquired at the trade deadline last season and played very well in the playoffs until tearing his groin in Game 4. Joining him will be rookie Robbie Nichols, one of the top Midget AAA goalies last season from the state of Colorado.
As far a new faces to the line-up, the Wild may have themselves a gem in Trevor Stewart. Stewart, 18, is a direct product of the North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL), playing for the Wenatchee Wild 18U team last season. Stewart led the entire PHL in goals last season with 25 and through training camp and the first couple of exhibition games against some very good Canadian junior teams, Becanic says Stewart has been very good. “I think it’s significant to see a player like Trevor come to the NAHL and have success right off the bat. That tells us that the PHL developmental system is working, is really making a difference and giving those players an opportunity to be successful at the NAHL level.”
Becanic has his name engraved on the Robertson Cup before, so it is clear that his construction of the Wenatchee Wild will set them up for great things in 2011-12. In just three years they have accomplished so much and been an inspiration to a community. The only thing left on the checklist may be the Robertson Cup National Championship itself, something that this year’s Wild team should be considered a favorite to win.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Wichita Falls Wildcats.