WATERTOWN — Growing up in Sweden and then later residing in southern California while following the Anaheim Ducks, Andreas Johansson has always been a fan of the game of hockey, played at a fast pace along with grit and tenacity.
Johansson, who purchased the Watertown Wolves in the spring, anticipates the team will not only be an up-tempo style of team, but will employ toughness as well.
“I’m a hockey fan, this is where I want to be ... and sure, I love it,” Johansson said of watching the Wolves’ team grow this offseason. “It’s exciting, I think the team’s going to be really great on the ice. Well-prepared, we’re going to be well-coached, it’s very structured.
“And as far as entertainment, there’s no better sport.”
This is if the Wolves indeed have a season in the current world of the coronavirus pandemic.
Usually the regular season in the Federal Prospects Hockey League gets underway in early November, but the tentative start date for the league has been pushed back into the New Year. The league had targeted a tentative date of Dec. 18, but this date has been moved to no earlier than Jan. 15, the league announced Thursday.
“I think pushing the date back became inevitable in order to be able to safely play,” Johansson said. “There are some things you really can’t control, it’s what you do on the ice. Obviously we have a lot of plans long-term, but as far as right now, we’re trying to make the team real strong, real competitive and just have a good season, whatever that means right now.”
Johansson purchased the majority share of the franchise from Don Kirnan, also the FPHL’s commissioner, who founded the league, with its first season in 2010-11.
“And when I got to know Don for a while, it was probably maybe the right time for him to move on and just focus on growing the league,” Johansson, 35, said. “And I had actually been to Watertown a few couple games to watch the Wolves play when I was still exploring what I was going to do in the FPHL. And I said ‘look, it would be a good time for us to come back to New York and I would like to move up here,’ because I really liked the team.”
Johansson, an entrepreneur and real estate investor, has pondered buying a hockey team in the past in other cities, including Memphis, Tenn.
He sees something special in the Watertown market as the Wolves franchise has existed since it was founded in 2014 by a local ownership group.
“I looked at a few other areas in the Northeast, but it just made sense to come here,” said Johansson, who now resides in Pittsford near Rochester and has lived in Florida as well. “The city’s very supportive, the mayor’s been very good and we’re talking constantly about COVID and all the stuff that’s going on, he’s been very supportive in trying to help us out and we want to pay him back by showing success and winning a championship again.”
Watertown Municipal Arena’s seating capacity for hockey is 1,500, according to the team’s web site.
“The fans are extremely supportive, we sold more season tickets by the end of May than the team had ever sold in a season before in the past,” Johansson said. “So the fan interest is huge and a lot of people reached out to me with suggestions, feedback, whatever, just saying they want to come back to hockey and you don’t get that in every place.”
Johansson conveys that he’s isn’t in this venture at this level for much, if any, financial gain.
“I watch a lot of hockey and I love the sport, obviously,” Johansson said. “You’re certainly not doing this for business reasons. You can make some money, whether it’s Watertown or somewhere else, but that’s not why you’re doing this. You do it because you love the game, you do it for the fans and you do it for the guys that have a dream of playing this sport professionally and you give them that opportunity.”
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have major plans for the Wolves franchise, with the main goal as continuing to win and capturing another league title.
“On the ice, our ambition is to win every season and that’s always going to be it,” Johansson said. “We offer a lot and we demand a lot. And I think between myself and (team coach Brent Clarke) Clarkie and the leaders on the team, we’re all in a situation where we know what it’s going to take.”
One of his first moves as owner was to hire Clarke as both general manager and coach. A former Thousand Islands Privateers player, Clarke guided the Wolves to the FHL title in their first season of 2014-15.
“Obviously he’s a local, which helps a little bit in marketing the team because he was already up here,” Johansson said of Clarke, who also coached Watertown’s chief rival, the Elmira Enforcers, the past two seasons. “But primarily it was because of his results, he’s a winner and our only objective for the season is to win a championship. We’re willing to give these guys everything, if you see the locker room, we’re upgrading it, we’re doing some things for the guys that maybe haven’t been done before. We give them a lot and then we expect a lot and I think that’s what we’re going to get.”
Johansson said the team still plans on holding its training camp in nearly a week at Watertown Municipal Arena, opening Nov. 30 and continuing through Dec. 5.
The Wolves are returning a core of talent players, which will be supplemented by several acquisitions in the offseason, including trading for forward Fred Hein, a deal in which Watertown sent longtime Wolves and veteran defenseman Kyle Powell to Danville.
“So you’ve got to find that right balance, by keeping some of the fan favorites and making some moves when you need to and obviously we’ve made a lot of moves,” Johansson said. “And you bring in new talent when you can, especially when the opportunity comes.
He continued, “(Deric) Boudreau is coming back, he’s just waiting for some clarity, we’re still counting on him to be a key player for the team, too. (Ryan) Marker is coming back up soon, Fred Hein, Lane King is obviously back and he’ll be healthy again. So there will be a good mix, some of the fan favorites, but we did make some trades to try and shake it up a little bit.”
Johansson’s other plans for the Wolves franchise include installing video boards at the arena, as well as other elements to improve the fan experience.
“And we’re doing a few things, we’re putting video boards in and we’re going to do a few other things for the fan experience down the line,” Johansson said. “As well as merchandise sales, you hope to grow, but most of that I tie back into if you have a successful product on the ice, people are going to show up if you’re competing and winning. ... And we want to make sure the branding is stronger, I mean we want to be everywhere.”
He also hopes on improving the players’ experience with the team, including improved player housing.
“We’ve upgraded a lot of things, all the equipment is new, we made a couple enhancements to the locker room and a couple other things that we’ve done for the guys off the ice, just to make them real comfortable and be able to really perform,” Johansson said. “With the away games and stuff, we’re changing up a little bit their routines, maybe we’re going to spend a little more money, but we’re going to get that back hopefully in results.”
Johansson is hoping the Wolves will ultimately get the chance to play this season, even amid the concerns and regulations of the pandemic. This includes being able to play in front of some capacity of fans, which is vital to make both the team and the league viable.
“We’re hoping to play with fans at some point this season,” Johansson said. “But realistically, it’s going to be limited. I mean right now, zero fans is the limit right now, so we’re hoping to get to 25 (percent) and then 50 and who knows where we’re going be at the end. But right now it’s pretty rough right now if we’re going to start.”
Johansson has made a career as an entrepreneur and in real estate, also working with professional athletes, such as Dennis Rodman and several members of the New York Giants. Once there is a season, he hopes to invite some former Giants players up to Watertown to give a talk for the Wolves.
“I have clients that have Super Bowl championships, Stanley Cup rings, Olympic gold medals,” he said. “Being around those guys, it teaches you what it takes, it teaches you that you need perfection in everything you do, you need a complete commitment to it. You can’t do it halfway, you’ve got to do all you can.
“Being around guys like that is a great inspiration and I’m going to bring them up to meet our guys.”
Johansson followed the Ducks while as a season-ticket holder, including watching such superstars as Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya as well as teammates Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, when he lived in California. He also reveled in the team’s success when it won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
“If you go to anything else, you go to a football game, a soccer game, it’s great, but it’s slow,” he said. “Hockey, you can go on a date, you can take your mom, you can take whoever you want, but there’s always something happening. You’ve got non-stop action, you’ve got a lot of shots on net, physical play.
“Obviously at this level, fighting is still very much alive and we’re certainly going to be a pretty tough team. Clarkie likes to play that kind of hockey, obviously he’s from Toronto and that’s how they play. But I like it, at this level, that’s how you get your results.”
He’s hoping the Wolves will play a high octane as well as physical style of play when they do hit the ice, while playing in a packed arena on a nightly basis.
“If you see the guys that we’re signing, these guys are like 6-(foot)-3, 6-4 and 6-5, these are big players — and that’s going to resonate with Watertown fans, they want to see that kind of hockey. So we want to get to a point where it’s full every night, and whoever comes in here, they know they’ve come to the worst place to be in the league, it will be hell to play here.’
“It’s very small and the way it’s built, everyone’s right on top of you. There’s no reason this place isn’t going to be the hardest place to come to in this league — that’s the blessing of having a small venue like this. If we pack this place, it’s going to be loud.”