Sure, it sounds like a blessing to have two NHL teams’ prospect groups at your disposal — to be able to work with multiple first-round draft picks and several impressive veterans at the same time.
But when you’re trying to merge two organizations together…and their staffs…and their expectations…and deal with COVID-19 restrictions…and be there for players mentally and emotionally…and be asked to make every player better on the ice…and win games, it doesn’t make for an easy season.
ChicagoWolves.com sat down with Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky as the Central Division champions closed out their 2021 season. The 33-year-old Massachusetts native never has shied away from high expectations — he’s the one during the preseason who set a goal of going 30-0 — and never has shied away from discussing exactly what’s on his mind.
Here’s Part 1 of the Warsofsky Exit Interview:
Let’s go back to the start. How many days in advance did you get a heads-up that the added affiliation with Nashville was going to happen and how did it all unfurl?
“I was in Raleigh at training camp. I’m pretty sure it was New Year’s Eve when I got a call from (Carolina president and CEO) Donnie Waddell and he said, ‘I’m pretty sure this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to play and we’re going to have two affiliations.’ It wasn’t a done deal, but we had a good idea.
“So we got started. I talked to (Milwaukee Admirals head coach) Karl (Taylor). I talked to Scott Nichol (Nashville’s Director of Player Development) and the guys in Nashville and we started coming up with a plan and getting organized and here we are.”
Did you know Karl or Scott or any of the Nashville clan prior to this?
“The only one I knew was (Milwaukee assistant coach) Scott Ford. Scott played for me in South Carolina in the ECHL, so I had a relationship with him. But I did not know Karl, I did not know Scott and I certainly did not know the (Central) Division. Because we were in Charlotte (the previous two years). Yeah, like any coach, you watch the box scores and you know some of the players, but you’re really not diving into the division. You don’t see them. You’re busy with pre-scouting your opponents and teaching and working with players individually and there’s only so much time in the day.
“So I didn’t know what I was getting into with the division. I hadn’t been here (in Chicago) because I couldn’t get here because of COVID. So it was a lot of work early to build the relationships, get my family settled here. So there was a lot going on, but that’s part of the gig and we made it work.”
How long did it take, whether it be in the dressing room or on the ice or wherever, to not think “That’s my guy” or “That’s Karl’s guy?”
“Honestly? Day 1. That’s what I said to the group. ‘These are our guys. I understand that Karl has been working with some guys for 3-4 years and I’ve been working with other guys who came with us from Charlotte. But at the end of the day, this is only going to work is if we’re one team.’ I give credit to the players for handling it extremely well. We talked about the elephant in the room from Day 1 in the first meeting. And since then we haven’t had any issues. It was good from the coaching staff to the players. Guys have understood that we’re playing for the Chicago Wolves. That’s just the bottom line.
“That’s how I approached it and I think the guys followed and we did a really good job of (not having boundary lines). If Karl saw something with Ryan Suzuki, he’d go talk to him. He’s a smart guy. He knows what he’s talking about. If I saw something with Anthony Richard that could help him progress his game, then I’d talk with him. At the end of the day, it’s about the players. It’s not about me. It’s not about Karl. This is a sport and a league that’s about the players. I think a lot of coaches get blindsided by that in a way. I’m not trying to throw anybody under the bus, but at the end of the day it’s about the players and getting them better and winning hockey games.”
Now, if the Wolves hired another Public Relations person and put him in my office and said, “OK, you two have to play nicely together,” it would take a little time, even if you loved the other person who was with you. Did it take any time for you and Karl to adjust? Because you’re both alphas, you’re both head coaches. How did you work that out?
“I think it was really good. We had a lot of conversations before we got here, so that helped. Scott Nichol helped that relationship and that communication and how we wanted to do things. Karl, ultimately, had to take a step back, unfortunately, just because of the way the situation was because he had no team. And I give him credit. He did a really good job of not letting it be a negative.
”I feel I’m a super-positive guy. I want good energy in the room. I want good energy on the bench and on the ice and I felt he was really good for us. He helped with our power play, which was Top 4 in the league. I learned a lot from him and hopefully he learned some stuff from me. So I thought it was a really good relationship that continued to grow throughout the season.”
Now let’s play some name association. I’d let to get your thoughts on some of this year’s players. Let’s start with Seth Jarvis.
“Oh, really good. He’s got a high ceiling. Tons of skill. Came in here and hit the ground running points-wise, obviously, but he’s got a bright future. Plays with some fire in his belly. He’s a competitor.”
“I think he had a roller-coaster of a season. He has been inconsistent at times. But when he’s consistent, he’s REALLY good. I think he’s another guy who’s going to be a really good player. He’s just got a little ways to go learning the pro game, learning how to take care of himself, getting a little bit stronger. Playing a little bit more of a direct, physical style. But super-coachable. Wants to learn, wants to get better.”
“The big thing for young players is they need to have a big summer, right? That’s always the case, but for young players especially, we have stressed it a lot: The American League next year is going to be 10 times faster, 10 times more physical, more emotional, more detailed, more teams, more experience, more travel. So it’s going to punch you in the face on Opening Night.’ So we’re trying to get them mentally prepared and engaged for what they’re going to see come October.”
“He started off a little slow. Learning the North American game. Learning the style, learning the culture, new country. I think it took him about 10 games. Then he got really hot and played really well, started working a little harder. Now he has hit a little speed bump. I don’t know if it’s a little bit of a crash-and-burn with the energy factor, but he just slowed down. That’s why he came out of the lineup (for one game the final week). He needs to work harder with the puck and away from the puck.
“But we’re talking about a guy who has elite-level skill, an elite-level shot. If we can get him to work a little bit harder consistently, we’re talking about a guy who can play in the National Hockey League and potentially score a lot of goals. He’s got All-Star ability. It’s going to be up to him to put the work in this summer. Come back next year with a really good attitude and ready to work.”
COMING UP IN PART 2: Warsofsky’s thoughts on several more Wolves players, the 2021 season as a whole and who he believes was the team’s Most Valuable Player.