24 teams in 24 days: Wenatchee Wild
September 11, 2013
The 24 Teams in 24 Days series features a look at all 24 teams in the NAHL for the 2013-14 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Friday, September 13th as eight NAHL teams take to the ice on Opening Night. 24 in 24 will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interviews with all 24 head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the 2013-14 season, including taking a look at their roster and their strengths as a team. It will also take a look back on the 2012-13 season and how each team fared and what they accomplished. Best of all, 24 in 24 is done to provide the fans of the NAHL with an inside look at their favorite team and what to expect.
Head Coach: Bliss Littler
2012-13 record: 18-35-7, 43 pts. (4th in the West Division) (as the Fresno Monsters)
2012-13 leading scorer: Matt Salituro (57 GP, 20G, 27A, 47 Pts, -10) (with Fresno Monsters)
2013 Playoffs: Lost in West Division Semi-Finals to Wenatchee, 3-2 (as the Fresno Monsters)
2013-14 Division: Midwest
First regular season game: Wednesday, September 18th vs. Topeka RoadRunners, 1:30pm
Home opener: Friday, October 4th vs. Minot Minotauros, 7:05pm
In the changing landscape of the NAHL this past off-season, the Wenatchee Wild were right in the thick of things. The Wild club from the 2012-13 season under new head coach Bliss Littler had a remarkable run, as they won the West Division regular season and playoff titles and advanced all the way to the Robertson Cup National Championship Game. Despite the loss to Amarillo, it was a season to remember for Littler and his group. However, just a few days later it was announced that the franchise would move to South Texas to become the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees.
Enter into picture the Fresno Monsters, who ironically had pushed the Wenatchee Wild to the brink of playoff elimination in the West Division Semi-Finals last season. Fresno went up 2-1 in the best of five series, only to see Wenatchee win the final two games to advance. Following the end of the playoffs and two weeks after the Wenatchee relocation to Texas, the Monsters announced they would be relocating their franchise to Wenatchee to become the Wild (version 2.0).
“We fell in love with the whole environment up in Wenatchee when we attended a home game. From the reaction of the fans, to the venue, to the atmosphere on game day… it all played a part in leaving a lasting memory on us and ultimately deciding to relocate the team to Wenatchee when the opportunity presented itself,” said Owner/Governor David White at the time of the relocation. The only question that remained was, who was going to coach the team? Littler was faced with the choice of following the past Wild regime down the Texas, or to stay in Wenatchee and work with new ownership, which a month earlier was the competition.
Ultimately the opportunity to stay in Wenatchee and keep his family there in an environment they had grown accustomed to was the deciding factor for Littler. “Wenatchee is as good of a set-up for junior hockey as any place in North America. The arena, the lockerroom, the town, the community, the billet families, the schools, the strength coach… I could go on and on. It all goes into developing a successful team. It has to be the right situation and that’s what we have in Wenatchee. And, as a Dad, you can’t beat this place to raise a family,” said Littler. “I also had a very good experience last year in the NAHL and in Wenatchee. I took a lot of pride in our guys that earned NCAA commitments and also guys who will move on to being great citizens and people. The NAHL, whether it’s the players or the coaches, are at a very high level right now.”
Because of the timing of the events this past summer, the Wild had to start from scratch in building a team for the 2013-14 season because all of their players who played in Wenatchee the past season had their rights transferred with the move to Texas and all the Fresno players had become free agents. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been because I had all my hockey staff coming back with me and we got to participate and select players in the NAHL Draft. We knew what it took to have success in the NAHL, so there was a formula that was established,” said Littler. “However, our focus was on younger players for this season because by the time we were able to start adding players, most of the older players on our prospect list were already committed and the best talent we saw was in the younger crop of players we had at our main camp.”
Littler believes that as is tradition with Wenatchee teams of the past, goaltending will be a strength for the club this season. The Wild have three goalies on the roster, including two NAHL veterans in Gustaf Johansson and Mackenzie Sawyer. Johansson played a lot of minutes during the first half of the season for Kenai River last season, but he is coming off an injury and won’t be ready to play this season until mid-October. Sawyer played in 24 games last season with Topeka and put up some good numbers. The third goalie on the roster is 17-year-old Chase Perry, who Littler believes could have potential to be an NHL Draft pick.
On defense, Littler is high on newcomer and Robert Morris recruit Alex Bontje, who comes to Wenatchee after playing Junior A hockey in Canada last season. He joins former Fresno Monster defensemen Corey Sikich and Christian Salvato as the only veterans on the blueline. As for the new faces, Littler mentioned River Rymsha, who is a 17-year-old defenseman who is already committed to play NCAA hockey for Dartmouth. Sam Becker arrives after playing high school hockey in Minnesota for perennial powerhouse Hill-Murray.
The forwards are the most inexperienced of the group of position players, but they aren’t without talent. Kyle Buffardi and James Mathias both spent time with Fresno last season. Littler has been impressed so far with Colorado College recruit Trey Bradley from Cleveland, who Littler describes as a playmaker. Nick Balboa is another forward that should be able to come in and produce.
“I think that Fairbanks and Kenai are two teams were are going to be very good and we play them quite a bit, so we will have our hands full, but there is a lot of unknown about the division we are in because of the new opponents. I just want our team to improve each week and let the winning take care of itself. Hopefully during the last half of the year, we are in a position to challenge for a playoff spot. We the young group we have there will be a lot of focus on development and advancement of players.”
Next up in the 24 in 24 series: Wichita Falls Wildcats