A TEAM WHERE EVERYTHING CLICKEDMay 15, 2020
By Tom Witosky
When Tim Army walked out of the Iowa Wild locker room six weeks ago, the team’s head coach still hoped the season or at least the American Hockey League playoffs would still be played.
“Everyone was gone and the clubhouse was empty,” Army said. “I walked out of the locker room and looked out onto the rink. It was quiet and dark.”
As Army stood looking at an empty Wells Fargo Arena, the enormity of what a rotten thing could happen hit him like a Mike Liambas check. After putting together the best team in the club’s seven-year history, he, his coaching and sports operations staff, and the players might not be allowed to finish the season.
“For a few minutes, I really had a hard time breathing,” Army said. “I did get emotional because in our 63 games, the staff and players showed what a special team this was. It broke my heart. It really did.”
On Monday, AHL officials ended the 2019-20 season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down professional and college sports in mid-March. After seven weeks of waiting to see if the pandemic might subside enough to allow the resumption of the season, officials simply ended it instead.
Gerry Mayhew, who earned the AHL’s Willie Marshall Award for most goals in a season with 39, said the decision, though not unexpected, couldn’t have been more disappointing.
“You always want to finish out a season because you work so hard to get to where you are, and we were a team with a lot of ability,” Mayhew said. “It's a pretty big bummer that we couldn't finish what we started.”
For the record, the season ended with the club playing 63 games – 13 short of a full season, but the club already had tied the club’s record for wins and was on its ways to finishing with a highest number of home wins and fewest home losses in the franchise’s seven year history.
In addition to Mayhew’s goal scoring title, Sam Anas won the John B. Sollenberger Trophy, awarded to the AHL’s leader in total points. It’s the first time the Wild has had players win those honors and the first time any two Wild players finished in the top-10 in the two AHL categories.
Other Wild players ending the season as the top or near the top of AHL statistical categories were Kaapo Kahkonen, who led AHL goalies with 25 wins and seven shutouts and Brennan Menell, who led AHL defensemen with 42 assists and finished second in points by a defenseman with 47.
As a team, Iowa finished second in the AHL with 82 points and was fourth in win percentage (.651). It was among the top-4 in the Western Conference in both power play and penalty kill. It ranked third in the league in goals for (194) and sixth in goals against (171).
Asked to pinpoint why the team played so well this season, Army said it was a combination of factors.
“It was our style of play which emphasized speed, aggressiveness, and five as one cohesion,” Army said. “Our personnel fit the style of play as well as the collective mindset of our group, it’s work ethic.”
In addition, Army said the team had been built to withstand the usual uncertainty that comes with an AHL season with injuries and call-ups.
“We had depth this season, but even when that was tested we had players step-up at the right time,” Army said. “No matter who was in our lineup, we found a way to win hockey games. The ingredients were there to have success together. We could win in any type of game.”
Mayhew agreed, but added that the number of players on the club who had been with the Wild for a couple of seasons mattered a lot.
“When you have guys who you know each other, can gel and play together for as long as we have, it definitely helps,” Mayhew said. “We were one of those teams where everything clicked.”
Mayhew said the most difficult part of the season’s early end is the empty feeling of not knowing just how good the team was.
“When seasons end, you just know what the answer is,” he said. “Now we won’t ever know if we were right in thinking we could go deep in the playoffs and win it all.”
Mayhew added that the lack of closure extends to how the club has been building a strong fan base in central Iowa. Attendance figures showed the club likely to break last season’s average attendance record of 6,409 with home games left against Milwaukee, San Antonio, Manitoba, and Rockford plus a likely playoff run.
“The fans were great this year and we could see how it was building,” Mayhew said. “But just when it was getting interesting, it ended. I am sure the fans are looking to forward to getting it going again.”
Just how good was this team?
After 33 years of coaching on the college and professional level, Army said the team ranks with the best he’s ever been a part of.
“This team had everything that you need to have that success,” Army said. “I've been a part of other good teams and those were among the best teams I've been with. This team was every bit like that. They were able to win any kind of game.”