Three weeks into the SHL’s second season, the Michigan Gray Wolves are off to a strong start and are threatening to leave the rest of the league in the dust. In a year that has largely been defined by parity so far, Michigan is the shining exception to the rule. The Wolves have posted a 12-3-0 record to date, a mark that’s left them seven points clear of the rest of the league.
“We came into this season on a mission,” said C Hunter Bailes. “Sitting at home for the playoffs really stung after the year we had. We knew that as strong as we were [last year], we needed to step it up a notch. And so far, we’ve really done that.”
Many of the Wolves give credit for the team’s early success to new coach Ron Wright. Wright, who coached the Hamilton Pistols last season, took over in Michigan after Martin Delorme left to become the inaugural coach of the Quebec Tigres. So far, the Wolves have been deeply impressed by Wright’s deep knowledge of the game, his fanatical work ethic (he frequently sleeps in his office, and is always the first one in the clubhouse even when he doesn’t), and his apparently bottomless drive and intensity.
“We thought Martin worked us pretty hard in practice last year,” said D Frank Mudrick. “But Coach Wright came in and showed us we didn’t know from hard.”
Wright smiled when he heard Mudrick’s comment. “The first day of training camp, I told them: ‘I promise you, you’re going to hate me right now. I’m going to push you to the limit, and you’re going to curse my name. But come the spring, when we’re the ones holding the Vandy, you’re going to love me. I’m pushing you now to pay off later. If you can buy into that, we can do business.’ And they’ve all bought in, from the stars on down.”
Wright’s hard-driving style proved a poor fit with the more easygoing Pistols, but with the Wolves, he found a team hungry for a championship and willing to work hard for it. “I was prepared for some pushback,” said Wright. “I figured some of the guys would think I was a slave driver, or tell me to stick my drills where the sun don’t shine. But [the players] bought in from the start. This is the most committed, professional bunch of players I’ve ever worked with. As a coach, it’s a joy.”
By all accounts, Michigan is a force to be reckoned with. Last season, some around the league criticized the Wolves’ style of play as one-dimensional. To those critics, the team was winning by turning games into bloodbaths, slowing the pace of play with their aggressive defense and trying to eke out wins in low-scoring games.
This season, Michigan’s defense remains first-class (they’ve allowed only 26 goals, an eye-popping 14 fewer than any other team in the league), but their offense has stepped things up. Last season, the Wolves scored fewer goals than anyone except lowly Saskatchewan. This year, their output (46 goals) is solidly in the middle of the pack, led by Bailes, whose 9 goals place him in the league’s top 10.
“Last year, everyone said we were a goon squad and didn’t know how to play honest hockey,” said Bailes. “Well, they can’t say that now. We’re strong at both ends.”
Although Wright and his players are winning plaudits now, skeptics wonder whether the Wolves are setting themselves up for a case of déjà vu. Last season, Michigan rocketed to a 13-3-2 start and looked like a strong bet to go to the championship. However, they were soon passed by the Anchorage Igloos, who never looked back on their way to the Western flag and the league’s first championship. Will history repeat itself?
Bailes is adamant that it won’t. “Everyone acts like we choked, or that we went flat down the stretch,” the center said. “Well, that’s crap. We fought Anchorage hard all season, and we barely lost out at the end. We had a great year, but they were even better. We don’t expect this to be a cakewalk, but we know we’re better than we were last year.”
While the Wolves surge, the Igloos stumble along, hurt by the loss of C Nile Bernard to injury. Wright cautions that the Igloos’ 8-6-1 mark isn’t a reflection of their ability. “I know that we’re not seeing the real Anchorage right now,” said the Wolves coach. “This is our chance to play strong and build up as much of a cushion as we can. Because I know they’re going to get right, especially once Bernard returns. I’m expecting a dogfight all the way.”
It remains to be seen whether the Wolves can keep up this blistering pace all season, or whether they can dethrone the Igloos as Western champs. But if Wright and his men fall short, it won’t be for lack of trying.
“We won’t be outworked, outclassed, or outhustled,” said Wright. “I don’t believe in luck. I believe in effort.”