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The sign that dictates the terms of the hunt


April 23, 2014

Every time the Chicago Wolves walk out of their sumptuous locker room at their practice rink in Hoffman Estates, this is the message they see on the large sign above the door.

WINNING
IS
EVERYTHING.

You can’t miss the burgundy letters on that square white sign — just like you can’t misunderstand the Wolves’ yearly mission.

Sometimes, though, you can’t have EVERYTHING right away. Take this Wolves season, for example. The new coaching staff had to blend players from a new NHL affiliation with a bunch of new free-agent signees and a handful of holdovers while trying to teach new systems. When the season began, there were just six players who had played for the Wolves before.

“With a whole new group of guys, you need chemistry out on the ice and we didn’t really have that,” said veteran center Keith Aucoin, who has won everywhere he has played and ranks seventh on the American Hockey League’s all-time points list with 857.

“Coming into the season, I think people thought we were going to be a high-powered offense that scored a lot of goals. Sometimes that’s not the way it works. Whenever I’ve been on teams that do well, it’s because guys have chemistry on the ice and know where each other are. It was up and down for the first month-and-a-half or two months.”

Here are some examples of their early inconsistency: On Oct. 27, the Wolves lost 5-0 to Charlotte at home. Five days later, they traveled to Oklahoma City and thrashed the Barons 6-0…but the value of that win was neutralized when they fell to the Barons 4-2 the next night.

On Nov. 29, they smacked Rockford 7-1 at Allstate Arena before turning around the next night and losing 4-3 at Rockford.

Finally, with the Wolves struggling along at 12-12-0-2 in early December, it became clear to general manager Wendell Young the time had come for a meeting inside their locker room in Hoffman Estates. Time to remind everyone where winning ranked on the Wolves’ list of priorities. Several voices had the opportunity to share thoughts.

“There was a warming-up period and an introduction period,” Young said. “Then, come December, we were a .500 hockey team. And it was, ‘Are we going to be a .500 hockey team the rest of the year?’ when the management and the coaching staff knew we were a better team. The players knew we were a better team. We started identifying roles and a couple moves here and there and things have worked out.

“It wasn’t a beatdown. It was more of a build-up. A lot of pride is at stake, especially with our organization. You’re in some organizations and expectations aren’t that high. If you make the playoffs, you make the playoffs. If you don’t, you don’t. We don’t play that way. We try to put a team together to have a winning season and then get in the playoffs and win the championship.”

The Wolves have posted a 33-9-5-3 record since the meeting, which works out to a .740 winning percentage. That includes an absurd change in fortune on home ice. The Wolves opened the year 3-7-0-0 at Allstate Arena and finished the regular season on a 22-1-3-2 spree (.875). This makes Chicago’s late run to the Midwest Division title and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference even more meaningful because it offers more opportunities to play on home ice.

After the Wolves play Games 1 and 2 of their Western Conference quarterfinal at Rochester on Friday and Saturday, they get to host the rest of the best-of-five series as necessary. To a man, the Wolves say the home fans will see a united team that knows how to win.

“It took time,” said captain Taylor Chorney. “It was exciting to come here at the beginning and know that we had all that talent. But you’ve still got to work for it. You’ve got to find your niche on the team and I think that’s why we’ve been firing on all cylinders lately.”

On Wednesday, the Wolves held another team meeting in their locker room. Some of the same people talked. But there were no frank discussions about what has gone wrong — only eager talks about what’s to come. And, as part of another long-running Wolves tradition, each member of the team and the hockey operations department received a black T-shirt with the official 2014 playoff motto printed on the front and the back.

As the players collected their shirts and wrapped up their work day, they walked out the door in groups of twos and threes underneath the WINNING IS EVERYTHING sign and discussed what to do with the rest of their day. Together.

“I think we have a close team on and off the ice,” Young said. “I think that’s one of the ingredients most people and most fans don’t see: It’s how together a team is. That’s been my experience on championship teams. It’s the bond, the camaraderie, that the guys have. All the intangibles are there.“

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