AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE: AHL HOCKEY IN A PANDEMICMay 18, 2021
The 2020-21 American Hockey League season was a season that almost wasn’t. After a cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic a year prior, numerous starting date pushbacks, and a summer’s worth of “AHL Return to Play Committee” board meetings, it happened… Our game was back.
Feb. 5, 2021, marked the return of highlight reel goals, bruising body checks, gut-wrenching defeats, and last-second wins. In Des Moines, Iowa, it also marked the return of the roar of the crowd, or at least a socially distanced crowd.
The Iowa Wild’s home opener featured 3,242 fans in attendance… fully masked and fully energized after being without live pro sports since the AHL shutdown on Mar. 16, 2019. Every nuance of hockey felt a little sweeter that night. Each puck off the glass, each carve of a skate blade through the ice, and each goal… of which there were 12 combined, in an 8-4 loss to the Texas Stars to open the season.
With an off-season that stretched much longer than any current AHL players had seen before, there was inevitably some rust to shake off early. There were also the rigid safety protocols players and hockey staff went through, which included daily COVID tests, mask mandates and quarantine away from the rink from family and friends.
After going 4-9-2-0 in their first 15 games of a 34-game season, Iowa had their galvanizing performance at home on Mar. 27. The Wild triumphed over the Grand Rapids Griffins thanks to a late tally by forward Connor Dewar, who scored twice that night, in a 5-4 victory in front of over 4,000 screaming Wild fans.
From that point on, the rust faded. Iowa steamrolled their way to a 13-4-2 record to finish the season in fourth place in the Central Division, with a record of 17-13-4. In a normal AHL season, Iowa would have qualified for a Calder Cup Playoff berth, but for the second straight season, the AHL concluded without a Calder Cup Playoff.
“While players are here, we expect to win,” Head Coach Tim Army said. “Winning is a part of development, which is what we teach to our players. Finishing in a Calder Cup playoff spot the last three seasons is something we are extremely proud of.”
Individually, the Minnesota Wild saw great development in a number of their prospects here in Iowa. Among the most notable, the midseason arrival of 12th overall NHL Draft pick, Matt Boldy, lived up to the hype. Boldy tallied six goals, 12 assists for 18 points in 14 games with the Wild. Calen Addison finished second in AHL rookie defensemen scoring with six goals, 16 assists for 22 points in 31 games. Dewar finished the season with career-best numbers in goals (12) and points (22), and received his first NHL call up to the Minnesota Taxi Squad. Second round NHL Draft pick, Hunter Jones, posted an 8-2 record to end the season, and was honored with the CCM/AHL Player of the Week award on Apr. 5 for stopping 93 of 96 shots during a three-game winning streak in Texas.
It was a unique year, to say the least, but more so than ever, it was a year of gratitude for Wild staff, coaches, and players.
“We’re just grateful and very appreciative that we had a season this year,” Addison said. “At the end of the day, fans or no fans, it’s hockey… we got to do what we love and this was easily one of the closest teams I have been on.”
Iowa ended their campaign in front of a season-high crowd of over 4,400 people, falling 3-2 to Texas. It was their only loss in the month of May, as the Wild won the opening five games of the month to end their season on a high note.
The quest for a fourth-straight playoff appearance, and a first-ever Calder Cup, begins the weekend of Oct. 15, 2021, for Iowa. The home opener is slated for Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, at Wells Fargo Arena. Season memberships are on sale now.
Iowa Wild hockey is presented by MercyOne Des Moines Medical Center. For more information, please visit www.iowawild.com.