Jan 17, 2019

By Tom Witosky


If you ask anyone familiar with the history of hockey in Des Moines to name a person most responsible for establishing the sport here, Bob Ferguson would be among the first. Ferguson directed the Des Moines Buccaneers to two USHL regular season championships and two Clark Cup playoff championships in the five years he coached the team, compiling an overall 170-57-13 record. Ferguson, now the general manager of the San Diego, was in Des Moines this week to watch the Gulls play the Wild in a 3-2 overtime win for Iowa.

During the second intermission of that game, Ferguson sat down with feature writer Tom Witosky to talk about the growth of hockey in Des Moines and life in the AHL.

Iowa Wild: Every time San Diego has come to play in Des Moines you have been with the team. Is that intentional?

Bob Ferguson:  I basically spend every day with the team and do a lot traveling with them. I haven’t missed that many games over the years. But I always look at the schedule at the beginning of the year and highlight the trip to Des Moines to make sure I don’t miss it. It also seems like every time we come, the games have been exciting and entertaining like this one.

IW: You’ve seen a lot of hockey over the years in Des Moines and were with the Chops when they were here. What has been the key to the Wild’s success here?

BF: First, I want to say that for a Monday night, this crowd is very impressive. It’s a cold Monday night, but this is a very good crowd. Notoriously, the league doesn’t draw that well on a Monday night, but this is a very good crowd and provides a good sign that the Wild has become part of the community.

IW: How do you think the Wild has done that?

BF: It has been successful in becoming part of the community because they provide excellent game entertainment, but more importantly, and this applies to us in San Diego, is the affiliation with the Wild in St. Paul. Fans can watch this game tonight and possibly, when the Wild plays the Ducks on Thursday, they can see the same players in that game. It is a very good thing when your NHL affiliate is close because fans can relate to the development of the players here and see them play up there.  The Wild has been successful for a number of years now and part of that has to do with the development of players down here.

IW: The AHL expansion onto the West Coast appears to be a very big success. I assume the Ducks are happy with it?

BF: We couldn’t be happier with it. We were nomads for so many years since I’ve been involved, going back all the way to the Iowa Chops. We were in Portland for a year, then with the Chops for a year. Then we were without an affiliation for a full year. Then we spent a couple years in Syracuse, then Norfolk for three years. The Pacific Division has simply been a great thing for us. We have players who can practice with us and be in Anaheim for a 7 p.m. game that night. It has been great for us and the fact that players get to live in a community like San Diego during the winter has helped us to draw some very good free agents.

IW: You’ve watched AHL for over 10 years. I have been struck by how well prepared young players are to play at this level. Why do you think that has happened?

BF: Right now, we have a bit of an older team because of the players sent down to us. But I have noticed just how much the AHL has become a younger league. Teams are now leaving their younger players down here for a year, even a year and a half, before they expose them to the NHL. A lot of teams are now using that model because it allows them to enjoy success and learn what it is like to be a pro hockey player. They learn what kind of grind it is to play a full AHL season. At the same time, it has become a very entertaining product for fans to watch. Our group of young players is carrying us, much like the younger players are for Iowa. They’ve had opportunity up there, but have been sent down and are doing well. We are hoping for a long run in the playoffs simply to give them an additional boost for a promising future with Anaheim.

IW: I’ve also noticed how Iowa fans are beginning to understand the other teams in the Central Division. They now understand who plays for Rockford, for Chicago, or for Milwaukee, as opposed to just coming in and watching a game. They are beginning to identify with AHL hockey.

BF: Part of that still is the affiliation. They can watch a player from Rockford and then see him playing for the Blackhawks, just like someone with the Wild. Rivalries are being built up over a course of time. A lot of these players, particularly the younger ones, they’ve been playing against each other for a few years even though they have just played in the AHL. Some of the player rivalries are six or seven years old and now fans are beginning to pick up on them.

IW: Recently scouts have been telling me they believe the USHL is now one of the best junior hockey leagues in the world. Do you pay much attention to that?

BF: I do and I only disagree with the suggestion that is just now. It’s always been one of the best junior leagues. It is just starting now to get the recognition because players from the USHL are getting to the NHL in larger numbers.  It has always been a great league going back to the days of Joe Pavelski, Matt Read or Kyle Okposo. The USHL has always been an excellent league, though now they are finally getting the recognition they deserve. I would guess at least 50 percent of the players on the ice here tonight have a USHL connection. In the draft, we are usually very USHL heavy and lately, we’ve had all of our defenders having USHL experience. It’s great to see teams realizing there is NHL potential here.

IW: Over the years, what has been the biggest change in the game you’ve seen?

BF: The speed of the game. It’s been about eight years since they took out the red line from play on the attack. That really opened up the game considerably. Some people may miss it because the game isn’t as physical as it used to be, but the speed of the game has increased greatly. Today, it is more of a North-South game than ever before. The big change is now players come from everywhere whether it is California, Florida, Nevada, or Iowa, as well as just about every country in Europe. We have seven youth programs in seven rinks in San Diego as well as high school program. Hockey programs are growing everywhere.

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