It is always nice when a team can reflect back on a season and say they did something special, and although the Wenatchee Wild fell just short of making to the Robertson Cup Tournament, they did manage to set records along the way, placing themselves in the NAHL history books. The Wild shattered the NAHL record for least goals allowed and lowest goals against in an NAHL regular season in 2011-12. Wenatchee gave up just 102 goals in 60 regular season games, an average of just 1.70 goals against per game. Goaltender Robert Nichols (who will return to the team in 2012-13) and Greg Lewis (who committed to play for NCAA Division I Clarkson) played a big role in establishing the record. For his efforts, Nichols was named both the NAHL Co-Goaltender of the Year and NAHL Co-Rookie of the Year.
But as good as the goaltending, team defense and system was, the Wild could not solve their rivals from the North, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs, when it came down to the West Division Finals in the Robertson Cup playoffs. For the second straight season, Fairbanks would win the West on Wenatchee ice to ultimately earn the Robertson Cup berth.
In just five short seasons, the Wenatchee Wild has established itself as one of the model franchises in the NAHL, if not of all of junior hockey in the United States. Besides putting together another winning record and playoff berth last season, the Wild again were one of the league leaders in NCAA commitments as nine of their current players committed to Division I schools during the year and fan support again was strong as Wenatchee was third in league attendance, averaging over 3,000 fans per game.
However, the elusiveness of a Robertson Cup title had Wenatchee making changes in the off-season and they have appeared to go all-in with the hiring of new head coach and general manager, Bliss Littler. Littler, who brings almost 20 years of coaching experience at the Junior A level and a record number of wins that follow, was brought in as a successor to former head coach John Becanic.
“What I have done is said ‘this is our team’ and try and built some trust with the players over the summer,” said Littler, who has only had a few months to try and put his stamp on the team. “There was already some great talent in place and I heard some very good things about the returning players. I am excited to get on the ice soon and see what we have and to build on that with some additions to the roster.”
Expectations are high in Wenatchee entering the 2012-13 season, but Littler likes to keep it simple, a formula that has earned him 570+ wins through the course of his coaching career. “The two things that every junior coach has to do is develop players and win a certain amount of hockey games,” said Littler. “I expect our guys to play hard every night, play for one another and play for the name on the front of the jersey. I think if we can do those things, the winning takes care of itself.
As far as the Wild returning to their defensive style of play that earned them a place in the history books last season, Littler said that ideally he would just like to be a team that is hard to play against. “I think once we are able to evaluate the talent we have next week at training camp will determine the type of team we are going to be and what style we play, but I want a team that can get the puck up the ice, play quick and be a team that is physical and disciplined.”
With five years of franchise success already established, Littler says he knows that expectations are high in Wenatchee for this season. “From the moment I came into town, I was able to tell that the fans and the ownership take real pride in the organization. They want to see the team win, they want to see players move on and our expectation is that we continue to do that.”
As for a hint of who on the roster will play a key role in the team’s success in 2012-13, Littler singled out a few players that should have an impact from the beginning. “I think it was important to sign players like Noah Nelson and David Mead. I also think having a goalie like Robbie Nichols back gives us a huge lift. We have a nice core of veteran defensemen and up front I think players like Trevor Stewart, Jacob Barber, Chris Kerr, Blake Roubos, Max McHugh and Evan Schmidbauer are the veteran players we are going to look to put the puck in the net.
Next up in the NAHL 24 Teams in 24 Days series, the Topeka RoadRunners.