FERGUSON PAVED WAY FOR HOCKEY IN DES MOINESJan 24, 2017
By Tom Witosky | Follow @toskyAHLWild
If anyone can gauge the popularity of hockey in Iowa, it’s Bob Ferguson, the legendary former coach of the USHL Sioux City Musketeers , Des Moines Buccaneers and now the general manager of the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League.
“People always say that Iowa isn’t a hockey state,” Ferguson said on a recent visit with the Gulls to the place he called home up until 15 months ago. “Then I ask why are there five USHL teams in Iowa and two teams in Des Moines that are all doing well? Hockey gets plenty of support and my guess is that it will grow.”
Ferguson made his comments after spending several days in Des Moines as he accompanied the Anaheim Ducks affiliate on brief road trip through the Midwest. Ferguson, who did two tours as the Buccaneers coach from 1990-91 again from 2001-02 through 2003-04, led the Buccaneers to two Anderson Cup championships (USHL regular season), two Clark Cups championships (USHL playoffs) and one Gold Cup (national junior championship) during his tenure with the club.
Ferguson has been with the Ducks organization since 2008 when he became assistant general manager of the Iowa Chops. The Chops folded after that one year as a result after the club’s owners failed to make good on its financial affiliation with the Ducks and other problems.
But, Ferguson said, the Ducks organization would have remained in Des Moines if it had owned the franchise. In fact, a Des Moines franchise would have been much more preferable to the nomadic stint the Ducks minor league system had to endure when it went dark for one year then spent two years in Syracuse and three years in Norfolk, VA.
“We would have liked to stay here if we could have,” Ferguson said. “It was a positive year for us on so many levels.”
That team finished out of the playoffs, but with a .500 record. Ferguson said that the city served the Ducks organization well.
“Player development was good, travel was good, and the players enjoyed it.” Ferguson said. “It is a great town for players because of the reduced cost of living and they can get to be recognized around town. Over all, we would have loved to been able to stay here, but that just didn’t work out.”
That’s why, Ferguson added, the decision by the Minnesota Wild to relocate from Houston to Des Moines four years ago was the right decision for the AHL and for the Wild.
“You look at the Iowa Cubs and understand something really important,” he said. “If fans can see that players from here are making it to the big leagues, then you are going to build a stronger and stronger fan base. The fact that Minnesota is close and is having a good year shows why it makes sense for them to be here.”
The same is true for the Gulls, which opened its first season in San Diego last season as part of a major AHL expansion to provide the NHL teams on the West Coast and in western Canada with nearby minor league franchises. The five clubs – San Diego, San Jose (NHL Sharks), Ontario (NHL Kings), Stockton (NHL Flames) and Bakersfield (NHL Oilers) – were joined this season by Tucson, the Arizona Roadrunners affiliate.
Ferguson described the expansion as a “home run,” adding that the Gulls have become a much more integral part of the Ducks operation. Separated by only a 75-minute car ride, top Ducks staffers are much more likely to be in San Diego to watch their minor league club than when it was on the East Coast.
“It’s been a home run from the start,” Ferguson said. “Anaheim’s staff comes down quite often and both coaching staffs have been able to work together. When we were on the Atlantic Coast, it seemed just so far away from the NHL for them.”
Like the contribution made this season to the Wild by Iowa call-ups Jordan Schroeder, Tyler Graovac, Zack Mitchell and Kurt Gabriel, Ferguson said that the Gulls players have had success in Anaheim recently. He said at three recent home games Ducks players, who began the season in San Diego, scored goals for the NHL club.
“It helps to keep players with a good mental approach knowing they are just one good game or one call-up away, one injury away from playing in the NHL. A lot of our players are going up,” he said.
As for the future, Ferguson said that the Wild should continue to do well in Des Moines as the club continues to move their top young players through the system. “When fans can turn on the television and see players who were here up there, it makes a difference to them and makes them want to watch the club here,” he said.
Ferguson also said that he would like to see a broader mix of teams playing each other. He said West Coast fans would like to see a greater number of teams and so would the players.
“Counting the playoffs, we played Ontario something like 19 times,” he said. “I know the players would like to play the Midwest teams a bit more.”
But one thing not likely to change is the Ferguson’s residence. After keeping a home in the Des Moines area for nearly 30 years, the Fergusons have moved to southern California.
“Well, it is pretty nice there all the time,” Ferguson said with a laugh.