First and foremost, junior hockey – regardless of the level or league – is a developmental program to help aid players in reaching the next level. What that next level might be will change depending on the league, tier, and a player’s age. But the end game is always the same; players want to reach the bright lights of the National Hockey League.
The Northern Pacific Hockey League, a tier III league that is located in the Pacific Northwest, has moved players to numerous levels of hockey throughout it’s 15-year lifespan. The NPHL has seen players make the jump to tier II, such as Eric Williams from the Wenatchee Wolves, to division one collegiate hockey, such as Tyler Poulsen from the Eugene Generals. The league has even seen one player, Tyler Johnson, reach the NHL.
In order for a league to progress players onto the next level, it needs a strong core of teams that are focused on the development of players first and winning games second. That’s exactly what the NPHL got when the Wenatchee Wolves joined the league for the 2014 – 2015 season.
The Wolves, an 18 and under development team, are a part of the Wenatchee Wild organization, an organization that plays in the British Columbia Hockey League. The Wolves boast a full-time professional coaching staff that has experience playing – and coaching – at the junior, college, and professional levels. Head Coach, Ryan McKelvie, came to the Wolves after finding success as a NCAA Division III head coach and NCAA Division I assistant coach.
The team’s assistant coach, Jake Obermeyer, recently retired after a six-year professional playing career in the CHL and ECHL. As a player, Obermeyer spent three years playing in the USHL and four years in NCAA Division I hockey. In addition to the Wolves’ coaching staff, the team has two certified strength and conditioning coaches that monitor all team workouts in Keith Baier and Tammi Flynn. The franchise also has an academic advisor monitoring the players’ schooling in Jenny Vannier.
Constructing a program from the ground up has its obstacles, but with the bad comes the good. McKelvie said, “the first area in starting out as a new team is finding our identity. We wanted to focus on creating a well-rounded development program that helps players reach a higher level of hockey. We also want to provide them with a great life experience while they are in Wenatchee. Our players develop in a highly structured environment that includes daily on-ice development, off-ice training, video, and school.”
Establishing an identity can be extremely hard, and it requires everyone within the organization to be on the same page. But, there is good that comes from establishing an identity. It helps a franchise bring in the players that will only improve the team, the chemistry between the players, and the culture.
McKelvie said, “we’ve been really lucky to have some great people play for the Wolves. For the last two years we’ve had players come here with a positive attitude and a mentality to work hard every day. The biggest thing is that we’ve had players that want to get better. This mentality makes it more enjoyable to come into the rink every day, and it allows us to be more productive in everything we do.”
Facilitating a team culture is hard, and it requires constant work to ensure that the correct culture is in place for a particular group of players. But McKelvie attributes this to, “holding players to high expectations. From a coaching standpoint, we’ve found that players want to be held to higher expectations. When you have high expectations for the players, they find a way to meet them.”
Since entering into the NPHL in 2014, the Wolves have gone 60 – 13 in 73 games. Not too shabby for a team that has been around for just about two years. But wins are not how the Wolves define success.
McKelvie said, “we don’t focus on winning games. Our objective is to be an elite development program where players come in, get better, and have a great hockey experience. This is always our focus, and when you focus on what we focus on, the wins take care of themselves. We’ve been fortunate this year to find success in the win column, but that’s not our focus with this program.”
“But when game day comes, we want to win just as bad as any other team. Throughout the week, we look at what we need to do for each individual player to get better. That way we are helping them reach their goals. When we focus on that, the individual player starts to see progress in their development; they become hungrier and continue to get better. That’s really our focus. We want to continue making this a developmental program as we try prepare players to be successful at the higher levels of junior hockey, and hopefully beyond,” continued McKelvie.
Some of the Wolves’ current players have been able to experience the franchise’s growth first hand. Griffin Wiencek, the Wolves’ team captain, has been there since day one to experience it all. Wiencek said, “we’ve grown a ton since our first year. I remember the very first tryout when we only had about nine guys show up, but last year there were about 45 guys who showed up.”
Hayden Givens, who is one of the Wolves’ leading scorers, has also been able to experience the team’s growth for both seasons. Givens said, “we’ve grown a lot since our first season. Last year was our first year in the league and our first start at things. But having a second crack at it this year really has allowed us to progress as individual players, and as a team. Coach McKelvie really pushes us to work hard every day, which pushes the team to be the best we can be.”
Entering into this weekend, the Wolves have now clinched the regular season title with a record of 32-1-0-0, and a .970 win percentage. The Wolves’ record is currently the best record of all tier III teams in the country. The team also has an opportunity to finish with the best win percentage in NPHL history. A record that is currently held by the Helena Bighorns, who posted a .960 win percentage in the 2010 – 2011 season.
The Wolves will play two one-game series this weekend. The first game will be against the Bellingham Blazers on Saturday, February 20th. Then the second game will take place on Sunday, February 21st, against the Seattle Ravens.
Tomorrow, tune in to the NPHL’s website for a full weekend preview.
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