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12/02/2013 3:55 PM -

Taking Root In Farm Country

by Tom Witosky - Follow @toskyAHLWILD

When Iowa Wild defenseman Brian Connelly woke up the other morning to find an inch of snow on the ground, it felt a bit strange.

“It’s been a while since I’ve seen snow on the ground,” Connelly, a Bloomington, MN native, said with a laugh. “I know my wife likes it at the holiday season.”

The two-time American Hockey League All-Star spent the last season playing hockey in Houston – a place where it doesn’t snow and is comparatively uninterested in minor league professional hockey.

“We were in a big city with major sports. We were under the radar all the time,” Connelly said.

But, Connelly and his Wild teammates now call central Iowa home – a place where it snows and just two months into its inaugural season where people know the Wild.

 “When people hear we play for the Wild, they know where we are at,” Connelly said. “And what we are doing.”

Make no mistake, the Wild has worked hard to put down roots here during the short five months the front office employees have been here and the two months that the players have been here. All in all, the Wild has found central Iowa a good place to be.

“It’s just been terrific,” Todd Fredrickson, the Iowa Wild president, said in a recent interview. “Attendance is above expectations and we are developing good relationships throughout the community.  What I have been really surprised about is how many people in this market know when we are playing our games.”

Building the Wild brand in a market considered lukewarm at best towards ice hockey is a long-term project, but the start of that effort has turned out quite well.

Consider the following:

--Average attendance for 13 home games is 5,670, which ranks the club eighth in attendance in the 30-team league. That includes two three-games-in-three-days sets in November, which genuinely tests even the most devout hockey fan’s interest. “Asking fans to come to three games in a row really does test them” Fredrickson. “The best you can hope for is that they’ll come twice.” Last weekend, the club averaged 5.642 over three games despite a home losing streak that has grown to eight games.

--More than 8,000 children will be getting free tickets to a Wild game for participating in the Wild’s school reading program. The program provides free tickets to all school age children fulfilling a commitment to read three books. The club has also established a school floor hockey program. In a partnership with Atlantic Bottling Company (Coca-Cola), the Wild is donating floor hockey sets (jerseys, sticks and nets) to over 50 area schools.  

-- Club officials and players combined have made community appearances 53 times since July including visits to elementary schools, to children in hospitals, the Downtown Farmers Market as well as charity walks to raise money to combat Lupus, ALS, and juvenile diabetes. Wild players and staff also joined the Movember campaign -- an annual charity event held during November that engages men to grow Mo’s (slang for moustache) to raise awareness and funds for cancers affecting men.

Jenna Bieri, manager of Wild marketing and community relations, said that the community efforts have struck a responsive chord within the Des Moines community. She said that appearance requests are increasing as are requests for charitable donations now at more than $5,000.

“We are hearing from the community a lot and we want to hear more from them.” Bieri said. “We will try to work with everyone if they believe we can be of help to their charitable cause or organization.”

For some players, public appearances can be a bit of a nuisance, given their busy schedules during the season. About the last thing some would want to do after practice is visit a school or a hospital.

But Jon Landry, one of the Wild’s defensemen, said that Wild players are more than willing to spend time with fans, particularly those who need a boost of enthusiasm in their day.

“We have some free time, so it is important that we get out into the community to help support what they are doing because they help to support what we are doing,” Landry said.

He said a recent set of hospital visits, in particular to Mercy Medical Center’s pediatric wing and Blank’s Children Hospital, can be inspiring for players.

“To walk out of a hospital room and hear a child say, ‘Mom, that was awesome’ just makes my day,” Landry said. “That is the reward we get. It is so much fun to just put smiles on their faces.”

Steven Kampfer, a Wild defenseman who has played 61 games in the NHL, said that the Wild’s emphasis on community appearances recognizes the link between fans and the club. He said the emphasis on appearances in Iowa is very similar to his experience with the Boston Bruins and the Minnesota Wild.

“With Boston and Minnesota, we were always out in hospitals and schools doing as much as we can to get involved in the community because we are a part of it,” Kampfer said.

Wild President Todd Fredrickson said that the players efforts in the community has been a good start, but there is substantially more work that needs to be done to solidify the club’s bona-fides in the community.

“Any new franchise coming into a market needs time to establish relationships with as many people and groups as we can,” Fredrickson said. “There are just so many hours in the day to go out to meet with the companies, associations and groups. We need to keep working on to develop partnerships with them.”

Early steps have included the Wild joining several business organizations including the Des Moines Partnership as well as several suburban chambers of commerce.

But for now, there appears to be a momentum that will help to drive the club’s roots deeper into the community this year, one player said. 

“We haven’t come full circle, but it is pretty clear to me that our hard work in the community as well as playing, is having an impact on the community,” Jon Landry said. “The name is out there. The fact is, that so many people already know what the Iowa Wild is and who we are, and that is a very cool thing. “

Want to contact Iowa Wild’s community relations?

Call Jenna Bieri at 515-564-8714 or e-mail at: jenna.bieri@iowawild.com

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