“The way this season unfolded made me sick to my stomach. It should make everyone on the team sick to their stomach. I want to burn the game tapes, but instead I’ll keep them and watch them all offseason to make sure it never, ever happens again.”
Michigan Gray Wolves coach Ron Wright, after the Wolves finished in fourth place despite winning the first 12 games in a row
The Michigan Gray Wolves have a very distinct identity: they suffocate opponents with a fierce, trapping defense and elite goaltending from Dirk Lundquist, then they manage just enough offense to win. It’s a frustrating style for opponents, and not always the most fun to watch, but it’s been extremely effective over the years.
This season, however, the Wolves face more challenges than ever before. Not only are their traditional rivals, the Anchorage Igloos, experiencing their usual second-half surge, but the Seattle Sailors and Saskatchewan Shockers are turning in their best-ever seasons. Michigan is no longer guaranteed a postseason berth, and their old winning formula is showing signs of cracking as their offense has stagnated recently. All of this led coach Ron Wright to take the rare step of sounding off publicly after yet another low-scoring loss.
Wright’s postgame comments came during a particularly troubling stretch for the Wolves. They’d lost 8 of their last 11 games, falling out of first place and into third. Although their defense had its stumbles during this stretch – most notably an 8-2 blowout loss to Hamilton that started the slump – the offense was the primary culprit. The Wolves have scored more than two goals only once during the skid, and they’ve been shut out twice.
Tuesday’s game in Hershey was emblematic of Michigan’s recent struggles. The Wolves’ defense was successfully stifling the Bliss attack, but the offense generated little sustained pressure, a problem that was exacerbated by the parade of Wolves going to the penalty box, usually for avoidable minors. The game remained scoreless until the third, when the teams traded goals within an 11-second span. Bliss RW Remi Montrechere finally won it for the home team in overtime.
After the game, Wright was blunt in critiquing his team. “We’re not playing championship-caliber hockey right now,” the Michigan coach told reporters. “If we don’t rediscover our hunger and intensity over these last couple of weeks, we’re going to be watching the postseason from home. And we’re going to deserve it.”
Wright centered his heaviest fire on the offense, or lack thereof. “Our scoring attack isn’t really an attack at all,” Wright said. “When you’ve got a world-class goalie like the Bear, it’s easy to get complacent and count on him to do the heavy lifting. But he can’t put up a shutout every night, and we’re asking him to way too much.”
The coach didn’t spare himself from criticism, either. “I think some of our sets on offense and our approach has gotten stale,” Wright noted. “That’s on me and the coaching staff. We’ve got to freshen things up a bit. But we’ve also got to start playing like the Vandy depends on it. Because it does.”
The players acknowledged that Wright’s concerns were accurate. “We’ve been playing tired hockey lately,” said C Hunter Bailes. “We’ve got to step it up and play the way we know we can, and we’re running out of time to do it. And the leaders on the team, guys like me, it starts with us. We’ve got to find that extra push to get us going.”
Wright’s words appeared to fire up the Wolves in their next game against lowly Dakota, as Michigan’s offense came to life and launched 38 shots. Unfortunately, they ran into an unusually brilliant performance from Jackalopes netminder Christien Adamsson, who made 37 saves, giving his team time to claim another 2-1 overtime victory on a slapshot by Ryan Airston. They snapped their skid in the next game, however, bursting out for six goals against Kansas City.
Wright noted that the team’s current struggles might have a bright side. “Having to fight and claw our way into the postseason might actually be a good thing,” the coach said. “Last season, we were so far ahead all that we started cruising after the All-Star break. Then we got to postseason and we couldn’t flip the switch. This year, we’ll already be in playoff mode. So we should be a more dangerous team… as long as we actually get to the playoffs.”
The Michigan Gray Wolves have never been ones for the trade market. While other contenders have frequently used the trade deadline as a chance to patch weaknesses before the stretch run, the Wolves have always passed. In some cases, this has been because they were too far ahead to be caught. But it also seemed to be a matter of philosophy; Michigan tended to trust their own players, even when they struggled, rather than looking to add outsiders.
“The guys in this locker room have been around from the beginning,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright in the run-up to this year’s deadline. “They’ve made the sacrifices and bought in to what we’re trying to do. I’m happy with what we have.”
But with Michigan clinging to a razor-thin lead in the West and with three other teams hot on their heels, GM Tim Carrier decided to break with tradition and make a deal. The Wolves picked up LW Kelvin Starkey and D Scott Hexton from the Kansas City Smoke in exchange for minor-league winger Cleo Rodgers, goalie Gus Parrish, and a 2nd-round draft pick.
“This is obviously not our usual approach at the deadline,” said Carrier. “And this is not in any way a commentary on the players on our current rosters. But with the race as tight as it is, I’d be remiss if I wasn’t looking for ways to improve our team. And this is a deal that makes us better now and in the future.”
While Michigan’s success has always been built on defense and goaltending, their punchless offense and aging roster have been growing concerns. As of the deadline, the Wolves were tied with Boston for dead last in the league with only 88 goals. And of their 15 regular starting skaters, eight of them are over age 30.
Starkey helps the Wolves address both concerns. The winger has been a reliable and steady scorer for Kansas City, with 23 points (9 goals, 14 assists) so far on the season. The 26-year-old is also signed for this year and next at a very reasonable $200,000 annual salary, another plus for the cap-strapped Wolves.
“This is a pretty cool opportunity for me,” said Starkey. “Knowing that a strong team like Michigan was interested in me… that’s a real boost. I can’t wait to get over there!”
The 28-year-old Hexton has struggled with the Smoke this season, recording a lone assist in 16 games as he has shuttled between Kansas City and their Omaha farm club. But he is a veteran with a reliable track record, and he was reportedly highly disenchanted with a Smoke team that he considered directionless and unprofessional. According to team sources, he had asked to be dealt if the opportunity presented itself.
With the Wolves, he’ll replace Igor Shovshenkov, a depth defender who was another member of the over-30 club. To facilitate the trade, the Smoke agreed to retain $150,000 of Hexton’s salary.
For the Smoke, the 21-year-old Rodgers provides the team with a much-needed scoring prospect. He had been considered a likely replacement for one of Michigan’s aging wingers, but despite a solid season with the Wolves’ affiliate in Cleveland (14 goals, 20 assists), his star seemed to have dimmed a bit within the organization. He will report to the Smoke’s farm club in Omaha, but is considered a strong shot to make the big-league roster next season.
The 29-year-old Parrish, meanwhile, will reportedly head straight to Kansas City to aid the Smoke’s woes in the crease. Kansas City is last in the league in GAA (4.13) and save percentage (.880). Parrish was having an exceptional season in Cleveland (8-9-4, 1.97 GAA, .912 save percentage), but was blocked in Michigan by the exceptional tandem of Dirk Lundquist and Art Cowan.
So after his “happy with what we have” comment a couple days earlier, how does Wright feel about the new additions? “I’m all for it,” the coach said. “What, you thought they were going to make this deal without asking me?”
What a difference a month makes. Since their 12-0-0 start, Michigan has stumbled to a 4-7-5 record. This week, they lost three games in a row for the first time in three years, and they ended the week in second place for the first time in almost a season and a half. The team’s performance was so concerning that coach Ron Wright took the rare step of publicly chiding his team.
The week began on Sunday in Kansas City against the struggling Smoke. The Wolves fell behind 2-0 before rallying with a pair of goals in the third period to salvage a tie. After the game, the players expressed disappointment in their performance. “We definitely didn’t play our best hockey today,” said D Max Madison. Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, it would be Michigan’s best performance of the week.
On Tuesday, they headed west to take on their strongest challenger to date, the Seattle Sailors. The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by their rivals. Seattle outshot Michigan 17-7 in the first period, setting the tone for the contest. Although netminder Dirk Lundquist stopped all 17 to keep it scoreless, the dam burst in the second as the Sailors scored three times. In the end, the Wolves were outshot 37-23 and outscored 4-0.
The Wolves then flew coast-to-coast for an interdivision game against the New York Night on Thursday. The Night have scuffled recently, but the Wolves found no reprieve in the Big Apple. New York dictated the tempo of play, and although Michigan outshot them 37-36, goalie Jesse Clarkson stymied them for a second straight shutout, 3-0.
On Saturday, the Wolves showed up at Centre Citadelle to face the Quebec Tigres. The Tigres are built in the same deliberate, defense-first mold as the Wolves, and the game was a taut and close affair. The game remained scoreless until the third period, when Tigres RW Sindri Pentti bulled his way into the slot and jammed a rebound past Lundquist. Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to come up with the equalizer and lost 1-0. It was their third defeat in a row and dropped them a point behind Seattle.
After the Quebec loss, Wright critiqued his squad during his postgame press conference. “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little concerned by what I’m seeing,” Wright told reporters. “The first three weeks of the season, they were a thing of beauty. We were tight, we were winning the battles along the boards, our passes were on target. But I think we’ve gotten complacent. We started believing our own headlines a little too much, acting like we’d already clinched. The intensity level isn’t where it needs to be.”
The coach cautioned that his team can’t take the postseason for granted. “Last season was basically a cakewalk,” Wright said. “But this year is different. Seattle’s playing out of their minds. Anchorage is coming on strong. Even Saskatchewan’s right in the mix. We better not let it slip too far, or we might not even make the playoffs.”
Wright concluded on a hopeful note: “Fortunately, we know we’ve got plenty of talent, and we’ve got time to get things back on track. And I think we’ll be better off having to work for it, rather than waltzing through the season. We’ll be sharp, and we’ll need to be if we’re going to win the Vandy.”
The players generally agreed with their coach’s assessment. “We’re not playing the kind of game we need to play,” said C Warren Marlow. “I think we’re all pretty disappointed. But like Coach Wright said, we’ve got time to turn it around.”
Marlow noted one key factor that might explain Michigan’s recent struggles: the absence of C Hunter Bailes, one of Michigan’s top scorers. Bailes is currently on the disabled list with a lower-body injury, his second ailment of the season. The Wolves have gone 4-6-1 without Bailes, and 12-1-4 with him in the lineup. “Once we get Hunter back, we’ll be in a lot better place,” said Marlow. “He’s the guy we need.”
When the Michigan Gray Wolves were swept out of last year’s Western Division playoff, some observers felt it was a watershed moment for a team that has regularly been among the SHL’s best. Were the Wolves getting complacent after multiple seasons of success? Was their aging roster starting to catch up to them? Were they about to be passed by the rising young teams in Seattle or Saskatchewan?
As it turns out, rumors of Michigan’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The Wolves are playing their most dominant hockey to date, smothering the life out of their opponents and threatening to turn the Western race into a battle for second place.
“The way they’re playing right now, no one can even lay a glove on them,” said Seattle Sailors LW Rod Argent. “They’re not even on the same dimension as the rest of us.”
The Wolves are relying on their tried-and-true formula, built around airtight defense and goaltending. They’ve been able to dictate the pace of games, often forcing high-flying opponents to play at Michigan’s preferred deliberate tempo. They’ve held opponents to 27.3 shots and under a goal per game. Even by the Wolves’ usual rugged standards, that’s domination.
They’ve already recorded six shutouts, more than most teams manage over an entire season. You might be tempted to credit elite goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist for that achievement, but two of those shutouts were recorded by backup Art Cowan.
Michigan’s sternest test yet came on Tuesday, when they faced off against the Anchorage Igloos, the longtime rivals who knocked them out of the playoffs last year. The Igloos are off to an underwhelming start, and they were eager to deal the Wolves their first loss. Anchorage managed to break Michigan’s defensive pressure and outshot them 41-20. But thanks to a sterling performance from Lundquist, the Wolves walked away with another shutout victory, this time by a 2-0 margin.
Ask Michigan players for the secret to their success, and they’ll point to coach Ron Wright. The Wolves’ bench boss is a master motivator, and he reinforced the team’s commitment to hard work coming into the season.
“Coach Wright knows how to get the most out of this team,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes. “He knows just how hard to push us without going too far. He demands a lot from us, but he’s taught us to demand even more from ourselves.”
Throughout the offseason, every time Wright came across an article or broadcast segment suggesting Michigan might be on the decline, he texted it to the team group chat. “We saw every bad thing anyone said about us,” said D Fritz Kronstein. “We were too old, too slow, over the hill. We were overconfident and rested on our laurels. The game is favoring youth and speed, and we were dinosaurs. It just fueled our fire. When we got to the first day of camp, Coach just smiled and said, ‘So, ready to prove them all wrong?’”
As great as the Wolves have looked, they know full well that this won’t guarantee them anything. They’ve had a history of getting off to hot starts, although never quite this hot. Both last year and in 2015, they started strong but ended up without a title. Michigan’s players, however, show no sign of letting up, which can only be bad news for the rest of the league.
“We know that we’ve got a long way to go if we want to win the Vandy,” said Bailes. “But we’re in it for the long haul. We’re all in to get the title, and we’re not going to let up until we get there.”
Saskatchewan ShockersG Zeke Zagurski is not widely known around the league as a colorful character. Within the Shockers’ locker room, however, the netminder has a reputation for being a little… well, quirky. “Zeke marches to the beat of his own drum, that’s for sure,” said D Chris Oflyng. “I mean, he’s not as crazy as our owner [Heinz Doofenshmirtz], but he’s his own kind of cat, definitely.”
Zagurski’s quirky side made a rare appearance on the ice, when the goalie was caught using one of his water bottles in a non-traditional way.
In the middle of the first period of Sunday’s season-opening game against the Michigan Gray Wolves, during a TV timeout, Zagurski reached for one of the two bottles sitting on top of his net. Rather than squirting it into his mouth, however, the Shockers goalie unscrewed the top and shook the bottle until a foil-wrapped package fell out. Zagurski then peeled back the foil, revealing a hot dog that he’d apparently smuggled onto the ice in the bottle.
“When we saw Zeke unscrewing the top of the bottle, we thought he was going to dump the water on his head,” said LW Troy Chamberlain. “We were a little worried, like ‘Is he getting overheated? Is he sick?’ Then out comes this hot dog, and he starts eating it. Then we were like, ‘Ah, that makes sense. Only Zeke would bring himself a hot dog to eat during the game.’”
Zagurski’s mid-game nosh drew the attention of Michigan’s radio broadcasting team. “Something strange happening over in net for Saskatchewan,” said color commentator Blackie Sprowl. “What’s Zagurski got in his hand over there?”
“Looks like it’s a… hot dog,” replied play-by-play man Philip Shelton. “He’s eating a hot dog. Folks, this is really happening: Zeke Zagurski is eating a hot dog while he’s on the ice. I don’t know where it came from, but… wow.”
“I thought we were the only ones allowed to eat during a game!” quipped Sprowl.
“So did I, but it’s snack time for Zagurski, apparently,” said Shelton. “We can’t make this stuff up, folks.”
“He’s my hero!” said Sprowl.
Wolves coach Ron Wright, on the other hand, was less amused. He barked at referee Darren St. James to make Zagurski throw the frankfurter away. When St. James declined to intervene, Wright lobbied St. James’ officiating partner Bernie Craig to assess the Saskatchewan netminder an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Like St. James, Craig refused to get involved.
Wright remained steamed about the incident after the game. “I thought it was a disgrace,” Wright said of Zagurski’s midgame dog-scarfing. “We’re supposed to be professionals, and this is supposed to be a serious game. Instead, we’ve got a guy out here acting like a clown, and nobody does anything. [Zagurski] has been in this league long enough to better.”
The coach called on the league to discipline Zagurski. “Otherwise, why stop there?” the coach snapped. “Why not wheel out a buffet table to center ice so we can all have a nice meal in mid-game? Why not have Uber Eats deliver food to the benches? If we’re going to be okay with eating food on the ice, why not let everyone in on it? Seriously, is this a hockey game on an all-you-can-eat special?”
For his part, Zagurski (who made 35 saves, but lost 1-0) claimed to be mystified by the fuss. “Goaltending is hard work, and I get hungry sometimes,” he told reporters. He added that he’d been exploring his options for on-ice snacking for a while. His original plan was to sew a pouch inside his jersey to hold some beef jerky, but “our clubhouse manager told me that would be an equipment violation,” so he opted for the hot-dog-in-water-bottle solution instead.
“Guys drink water on the ice all the time, and no one blinks an eye,” Zagurski concluded. “I have one little hot dog, and suddenly it’s World War 3.”
Zagurski’s teammates confirmed that his appetite is indeed legendary. “Everyone knows to hit the postgame buffet before Zeke gets to it,” said Oflyng, “or you’ll go hungry. That guy’s an eating machine.”
The league did not discipline Zagurski, but SHL Commissioner Perry Mitchell sent a communique to the referees clarifying that goalies’ water bottles must contain nothing but H2O, and indicating that future incidents would be penalized. “Zagurski’s actions weren’t technically in violation of the rules, but this isn’t a road we want to go down,” said Commissioner Mitchell. “If players want to eat, they can wait until the intermission breaks or after the game.”
Zagurski agreed to abide by the commissioner’s ruling, but he asked plaintively: “Why is it a crime to be hungry?”
The Michigan Gray Wolves have historically succeeded on the strength of their defense and the sure-handed goaltending of Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist. As the Wolves begin their quest to dethrone the Anchorage Igloos atop the Western division, they came out firing on all cylinders, as Lundquist became the first netminder in SHL history to open the season with back-to-back shutouts.
“All hail The Bear!” crowed Wolves D “Mad Max” Madison. “We like to talk about how nothing gets past him, but literally, nothing is getting past him right now.”
The Wolves opened the season on the road against the Saskatchewan Shockers, a team widely perceived as a rising power. Lundquist, however, barely broke a sweat in turning aside 21 Saskatchewan shots, and LW Scot Davenport’s short-handed goal stood up as the lone tally in a 1-0 Michigan win.
On Tuesday, the Wolves traveled up north to face the rival Anchorage Igloos at Arctic Circle Arena. Coming off of a disappointing tie against Dakota to open the season, the Igloos were determined to make a statement. But they ran into a brick wall in the crease, as Lundquist stopped 25 Igloos blasts and C Warren Marlow banged home a slapshot from the slot in the second period to give the Wolves another 1-0 victory.
Lundquist’s streak came to an end during Thursday’s home opener against Saskatchewan, when Shockers D Chris Oflyng scored on a power play 1 minute and 41 seconds into the opening period. Fortunately, the Wolves’ offense showed up this time in the form of four third-period goals, and Michigan rolled to a 6-2 rout.
“Talk about taking your game to the next level,” said Michigan C Hunter Bailes. “Some of the saves he makes, I don’t understand how he does it. He’s like Inspector Gadget, stretching out his arms and legs further than humanly possible.”
Lundquist, meanwhile, said that the Wolves’ defense deserved the real credit. “As a goalie, the fewer high-danger shots you face, the better you look,” Lundquist told reporters. “Our D is just incredible. They’re really strong at protecting the home-plate area and clearing out in front of the crease, and they’re all over the ice blocking shots and denying good angles. They make things easy for me.”
Michigan coach Ron Wright praised Lundquist’s torrid start, but was quick to point out that his netminder’s brilliance obscured the team’s early struggles on offense. The Wolves averaged a mere 1.3 goals per game while stumbling through an uninspired preseason, and Wright called on his team to improve.
“The Bear is the best goalie in the league, no doubt, but he’s not superhuman,” Wright told reporters. “If we’re counting on winning every game 1-0, this season isn’t going to go well for us. As great as Lundquist is, I think we tend to use him as a security blanket sometimes. We need more games like [Thursday’s]. We need to focus on sharpening our offensive game, so that we’re not relying on The Bear to be perfect.”