The Wenatchee Wild, despite playing in a lower tier of junior hockey than the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips, had two players drafted by NHL teams. The north-central Washington town averages over 2,700 fans for the team that won the British Columbia Hockey League last season.
The tranquil, apple-growing community of Wenatchee doesn’t exactly scream “junior hockey powerhouse.”
But the Wenatchee Wild just had as many players drafted to the National Hockey League as the Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans combined. Those latter teams play at a higher rung of junior hockey than the decade-old Wild, which speaks to what’s been accomplished within the north-central Washington town of 33,000 in a short amount of time.
“I think Wenatchee is one of the true special places to play junior hockey in North America,’’ said Wild head coach Bliss Littler, who boasts one of the best first names and win totals of any hockey coach.
Littler’s team has also become the top destination in this state for junior players ages 16-to-21 hoping to go to college before they turn professional. For the past three seasons, the Wild have suited up in the Junior “A” British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), a notch below the “Major Junior” Thunderbirds, Chiefs, Americans and Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
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Other than overall talent level, the biggest difference between leagues is WHL players are paid a stipend that causes the NCAA to view them as professionals. A player loses a season of NCAA eligibility for every game of WHL hockey they participate in.
BCHL players get free lodging from host families, but are unpaid and free to pursue college careers once their junior days are done.
“You keep all of your options open,’’ Littler said. “College hockey wants their players to play a year or two of junior hockey so they can come in bigger, stronger and more mature.’’
And so, Wild draftees Slava Demin and Jasper Weatherby are off to school after last month becoming the fifth and sixth Wenatchee players picked by NHL teams since the franchise was formed in 2008.
Second-year defenseman Demin, from Cypress, Calif., taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the fourth round (99th overall) will play for the Division I University of Denver Pioneers. Leading BCHL playoff scorer Weatherby, a forward from Ashland, Ore., and a fourth-round (102nd overall) pick by San Jose, will play for longtime Division I powerhouse University of North Dakota.
Demin and Weatherby helped lead the Wild to their first BCHL championship this past season, then a Pacific region title when they defeated the Alberta league’s Spruce Grove Saints 4-games-to-1.
That sent them to the Royal Bank Cup Tournament in Chilliwack, B.C. – Junior A hockey’s equivalent of the Memorial Cup – where they were beaten 2-1 in the semifinal game by the Wellington Dukes despite having a 51-14 edge in shots.
It was a banner season for a franchise that had tried in vain for years to join the 17-team BCHL up until becoming its only U.S.-based squad three seasons ago.
The Wild began in 2008-09 as a Junior B, or Tier II level franchise in the North American Hockey League, playing at the spanking-new 4,300-seat Town Toyota Center. The $53-million, multi-purpose arena was built specifically to lure a hockey team and the community quickly got involved when one showed up, having local schools choose the “Wild” moniker in a “name-the-team” contest that included suggestions such as Wonders, Bombers, Winning Walruses and Ice Busters.
Their first head coach was Paul Baxter, a rugged ex-NHL defenseman best known for having a puck thrown at his head in the penalty box – and getting cut for 10 stitches – by longtime enforcer Chris Nilan. After nearly winning it all their first season – losing 3-2 in overtime in the championship game – the Wild captured their second division title the following year but were eliminated in the second playoff round.
By the next year, Baxter was replaced as coach mid-season by John Becanic, who took the Wild to two more playoff appearances before resigning. In came Littler, the man of intriguing first names and a Scotty Bowman-like win total in the lower junior ranks.
On the name thing, Littler said: “My parents were just happy to be able to have a kid.’’
The regular-season win total speaks for itself: 788 and counting after 25 years grinding through junior hockey’s lower tiers as a B-level player, then coach in places such as Billings, Mont., Topeka, Kan., and Omaha, Neb., before arriving in Wenatchee.
Littler’s first three seasons running the Wild were also in Junior B before the franchise jumped to the A-level BCHL, largely because the proximity to other teams makes travel easier. His squads have gone 116-41-12-5 in Junior A since, though Littler has no plans to move up to major junior or college coaching.
“I’ve got the best owner setup any coach could hope to have,’’ he said.
That ownership came together in June 2013 after some whirlwind events saw the Wild confirmed as BCHL members, only to have the team’s owners announce the next day they were relocating the franchise to Hidalgo, Texas. A week later, it was announced a Fresno, Calif., franchise owned by David and Lisa White was moving to Wenatchee and would keep the Wild name and logo intact.
They kept Littler as well. The rest is part of some fast-growing junior hockey history.
The Wild averaged 2,767 fans last season – second-most in the league and more than 8 percent of the town’s population. Though star players typically stay only a year or two before leaving for college – compared to three or four years for most WHL players – the team’s consistent strong play has provided marketing enough despite the turnover.
And that marketing includes recruiting pitches to future players: touting their college options, the winning tradition, the arena, the draft picks and the small-town feel of a place that loves its junior hockey.
“It’s a great building,’’ Littler said. “It’s a community where the hockey team is the one thing that pulls everybody together. It’s just a really special place.”