“WHAT HAPPENS IF THE WOLVES PUT A GOOD, EXCITING TEAM TOGETHER…”
On Jan. 28, 1994, Don Levin, Buddy Meyers and Grant Mulvey held a news conference in Rosemont to introduce the International Hockey League’s newest franchise: the Chicago Wolves.
“If someone wants to see a puck dropped in Chicago, he or she won’t have to float a loan anymore,” wrote veteran Daily Southtown hockey reporter Tim Cronin.
“The new minor-league team scheduled to begin play next fall at the Horizon will be competition for (the) Hawks, whether the club wants to recognize it or not,” wrote long-time Daily Herald hockey reporter Tim Sassone. “What happens if the Wolves put a good, exciting team together and market the heck out of it while the Hawks plod along playing the same kind of boring hockey they’ve played this year?”
Sassone (and everyone else) didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
On Oct. 14, 1994, with the Blackhawks and the rest of the NHL locked out by ownership, the Wolves hosted their first game. These guys were popular animals.
More than 16,000 fans jammed the Rosemont Horizon to rejoice in Wayne Messmer singing the national anthem for the first time since being shot in the throat six months earlier, Wendell Young stalking the crease as the team’s goaltender and the Wolves capturing a 4-2 victory. It was a fabulous feast from start to finish – and not just because fans threw raw meat on the ice when Todd Harkins scored the Wolves’ first goal just 74 seconds into the game
As the Chicago Tribune’s Robert Markus wrote: “It was one part hockey, nine parts magic.”
The magic returned night after night at the Horizon. Head coach Gene Ubriaco – hired in part because he had started six franchises prior to the Wolves – built a team long on toughness and sprinkled with big names that drew huge crowds most nights.
Former Blackhawk Al Secord, who stepped out of retirement at age 36 to join the Wolves, received the loudest ovation on Opening Night and delivered 13 goals and 20 assists in 1994-95. Forward Tim Breslin, an Addison native, and Melrose Park defenseman Bob Nardella represented the Wolves’ commitment to having local products on the Wolves. Defenseman Gordie Roberts utilized his 1,097 games of NHL experience to serve as a player/assistant coach. Young split time in goal with 1992 United States Olympian Ray LeBlanc.
Then there was Steve Maltais, the 25-year-old left wing from Quebec who had scored 9 goals in 94 NHL games spread over several seasons. He was eager to find a place that he could call home and make his mark.
“When I started here, he was one of the top guys on my list,” Ubriaco said. “He was going to be our designated scorer, our star. He fulfilled that.”
Oh, did he fulfill that. Maltais scored 2 goals in the Wolves’ inaugural game. He led the IHL with 57 goals in the Wolves’ inaugural season. It seemed like every night on the TV news, there was a highlight of Maltais blasting a slap shot past a hapless goalie. When he retired after 11 seasons with the Wolves – fitting for the man who saw his No. 11 jersey raised to the rafters – Maltais owned three championship rings along with a ton of Wolves records that still stand including 454 goals, 497 assists and 67 game-winning goals.
Despite being a first-year team, Maltais and Co. earned a winning record and a spot in the Turner Cup Playoffs – setting the baseline for future Wolves teams.
NOTHING SCORES LIKE THE ‘BMW’ LINE
When the Wolves braintrust assessed the team’s needs for the 1995-96 season, they decided the offense needed a boost – and Ubriaco knew just whom to call. In 1988-89, Ubriaco served as the Pittsburgh Penguins coach when he paired young Rob Brown with the legendary Mario Lemieux. Brown stacked up 49 goals and played in the NHL All-Star Game.
Seven years later, the Wolves signed Brown and Ubriaco put him on a line with Maltais and center Brian Wiseman to form the BMW Line – and they became the scourge of the IHL. On March 24, 1996, for example, the Wolves piled up 8 power-play goals on the way to a 10-3 victory over the Kansas City Blades. Brown handed out 6 assists and scored 8 points to set single-game franchise records that still stand, Dan Currie became the first player in Wolves history to score 4 goals in a game and Maltais added 2 goals to reach the 50-goal mark for the second year in a row.
At season’s end, Brown led the league in assists (91) and points (143). Maltais ranked third in goals (56) and points (122) while Wiseman contributed 88 points before suffering a broken leg . The Wolves rode that firepower to their first playoff series victory – taking a best-of-five series against the San Francisco Spiders.
ADDING ANOTHER STAR TO THE CONSTELLATION
Before the 1996-97 season, the Chicago Wolves lost two important forwards. Brian Wiseman joined the Toronto Maple Leafs organization while Al Secord decided to retire and resume his career as an airline pilot (Years later, Secord told the Chicago Tribune that his two seasons with the Wolves were “the most enjoyable experience I had in hockey.”).
To fill their void, Wolves general manager and head coach Grant Mulvey lured former Blackhawks teammate Troy Murray into the fold. The 34-year-old center with 12 years of NHL experience helped to solidify the middle of the ice. “They have the scoring they feel is necessary to take them to the top of the league,” Murray told the Daily Herald when he signed. “I’m supposed to bring some leadership and some experience and help the younger players. It’s a role that I look forward to.”
While the Wolves continued to fill nets with pucks – Maltais led the IHL with a career-high 60 goals while Brown won the IHL crowns with 80 assists and 117 points – the team didn’t fill the win column and bowed out of the playoffs in the first round.
More important, the Wolves had the chance to hire a head coach and a general manager after Mulvey was removed from those posts in early March. Don Levin, Buddy Meyers and Gene Ubriaco wanted to find winners to fill those jobs – and did they ever find them.
On Sept. 4, 1997, they introduced 27-year-old Kevin Cheveldayoff as the general manager and 40-year-old John Anderson as the head coach. Cheveldayoff had led the Utah Grizzlies to the 1996 Turner Cup while Anderson had just directed the Quad City Mallards to the 1997 Colonial Hockey League championship.
Over the course of the next 11 years, they’d team up to bring four championships to Chicago. They needed less than 10 months to deliver their first.
“IT WAS LIKE GOING BACK TO THE OLD CHICAGO STADIUM”
With less than a month between his hire and the start of the 1997-98 season, Cheveldayoff wasted no time revamping the Wolves roster. While Maltais (46 goals) remained the team’s offensive leader, Cheveldayoff added forwards Scott Pearson (34 goals), Chris Marinucci (27 goals), Ravil Gusmanov (27 goals), Alexander Semak (26 goals) and Steve Martins (20 goals) around him as the Wolves led the IHL in scoring with 3.67 goals per game.
Wendell Young (31 wins) served as the iron man in goal for most of the season, but Cheveldayoff made his life easier by welcoming back defenseman Bob Nardella and adding NHL vets Tom Tilley, Marc Potvin and Kevin Dahl to the blue line.
The Wolves stormed out of the gate and led the Western Conference virtually from start to finish. From Nov. 15, 1997 to Jan. 3, 1998, Young won 16 straight starts as Chicago established itself as a legitimate threat to bring home the city’s first hockey title since 1961.
As the Turner Cup Playoff unfolded, Anderson alternated Young and Stephane Beauregard in goal. The Wolves swept Manitoba, powered past Milwaukee in six games and launched top-seeded Long Beach in the Western Conference Final to earn their first trip to the Turner Cup Final – but Young suffered a shoulder injury in Game 1 against the Detroit Vipers that kept him from playing the rest of the year.
Beauregard had to step up for what developed into an all-time-great seven-game series. The Wolves won two of the first three, but the Vipers defended their home ice in Games 4 and 5 to force the Wolves to return to Rosemont with their backs against the wall. The Wolves took Game 6 by a 3-1 score to force the climactic Game 7. The teams had two days off to let the suspense build.
Vipers coach Steve Ludzik tried to paint his team as the underdog. “The (Wolves) are just a team that’s tough to catch. It’s just pure skill. The (Edmonton) Oilers of the 80s is what you’re seeing out there.,” Ludzik said. “We’ve really got to come out with a great performance on Monday. All you can do is make sure your defensive coverage is letter-perfect. We’re just trying to get one for the working man.”
With 16,701 people pouring into the Rosemont Horizon, the Vipers tried to get one for the fighting man, too. After most of the players left the ice following pregame warmups, a fight broke out involving Detroit tough guy Andy Bezeau and Beauregard – something to do with firing a puck into a net. Young, who was dressed for the game even though he was too injured to play, skated over to defend Beauregard and slammed into Bezeau. Players from both teams began racing back to the ice – many in various stages of undress – to be a part of the brawl.
The game’s start was delayed for 30 minutes as security gradually restored order. The lengthy wait only made the crowd louder and more insistent that the Wolves needed to pull off the win.
After two scoreless periods, the Wolves finally broke through at 5:04 of the third period as Nardella chased a puck into the corner and centered it to Marinucci for a perfectly placed one-timer. Just 24 seconds later, playoff MVP Semak made it 2-0 and the Wolves added an empty-netter late as Beauregard posted 29 saves for the shutout and the franchise’s first Cup.
“It was like going back to the old Chicago Stadium,” Wolves coach John Anderson said after the game. “Now I remember why, as a (Toronto) Maple Leaf, it was so hard to win in that building. It meant a lot. (The fans) are part of this victory, too.”
Several months afterward, Levin still was trying to comprehend the magnitude of the achievement.
“It’s still difficult to talk about, even now,” Levin told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s 0-0 to start the third period, and I’m chewing through my nails. It was so, so tense. Three we scored three goals in the third period and it was over. I was floored…very emotional. I was in a state of shock. Still am.”
It was a feeling he’d come to relish – and it wouldn’t take too long before he and the Wolves would celebrate again.
By Lindsey Willhite, Photos by Ross Dettman