WATERTOWN — Despite their season being cut short, the Watertown Wolves still delivered a successful season as a franchise, said team owner Don Kirnan.
The Wolves’ campaign officially ended Monday, when the Federal Prospects Hockey League canceled its season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, the team’s season was shortened by 12 games in the regular season and the Wolves had also qualified for the playoffs.
“It would have been great to see it play out,” Kirnan said of the season. “There was a general concern and I thought the city did an excellent job putting in hand sanitizers a couple weeks before the shutdown, which I thought was good for the city to do.”
Yet Kirnan, who is also the FPHL’s commissioner, saw positives from the Wolves this season, both business-wise and on the ice.
“It’s never been better,” Kirnan said of the league. “And Watertown is a part of that success. Obviously we’re happy with the direction of the league, it’s going great.”
The team was one of eight teams in the 10-team league that made money, according to Kirnan, despite the season being called off with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“We were less affected in Watertown because we had played most of our home games and we added a home game in December,” Kirnan said. “Although season-ticket holders had three tickets left, they were only missing two games. We had other teams in the league that were short six or eight home games and of course with playoffs on top of that.”
In fact, the Wolves finished in the black financially for the second consecutive season, he said.
“Four years with the team, you see ups and downs with the fans,” Watertown veteran defenseman and team captain Kyle Powell said. “Sometimes, especially with the weather in upstate New York, not all the fans get out to the games. But when the fans do get out and pack the Wolves den, it is one surreal experience because of how small the rink is, how loud the fans can be, how passionate they are for the team.”
Attendance was down slightly from last season, but Kirnan is still encouraged by the season and in the potential future of the franchise.
“I think what we’ve done, is we’ve worked really hard and the community has really helped to make it a friendly place for the players to play,” Kirnan said. “And we’ve had good support from the fans as well.”
In the 2018-19 season, the Wolves drew a franchise-record 26,988 fans at Watertown Municipal Arena for an average draw of 964 in 28 home games, according to the FPHL website.
In 27 home games this season, Watertown drew 22,861 for an average of 847 in 27 home dates, with the average ranking it seventh in the 10-team league.
“We were definitely down from a year before,” Kirnan said. “And I do believe the last few games, we had two or three snowstorms that affected our attendance. I do believe there were a number of people that were afraid to come to those games, so that had an effect.”
The top draws of the season included crowds of more than 1,000 on seven occasions — topped by a crowd of 1,202 in a Nov. 23 game against the Danville Dashers.
The next two best crowds were 1,088 against the Danbury Hat Tricks on Dec. 13 and 1,028 on Dec. 27 versus the Delaware Thunder.
The season’s final top draw was a crowd of 1,002 against the league-leading Carolina Thunderbirds on Feb. 29.
Only two crowds dipped below the 700 mark — 450 and 460 during consecutive Wednesdays in January, the team’s only games on that day of the week.
In total the Wolves missed out on three home games and one guaranteed home playoff game.
“So we were affected less than other teams, but obviously we wanted to play,” Kirnan said. “We had made some acquisitions to try and get ready for the playoffs and everything else. We did everything to try and get ready and whatever we did do or not do, it didn’t make any difference.”
Other teams were hit much harder with the sudden shutdown.
“We’ve had teams in our league lost $200,000 to $300,000 in revenue with the early shutdown based on the games they had left,” Kirnan said. “So it wasn’t a very pleasant phone call when we had to shut it down. But we really had no choice.”
Kirnan said some players have returned home but others, as of the weekend, have remained in Watertown for now.
“It was very disappointing because we had players that were definitely looking to play,” Kirnan said. “We have a lot of people from outside the country, as of an hour ago, there were still players that we’re housing and taking care of because they weren’t able to make arrangements to get back to where they’re going.
“We’ve got people from all over the world, so the team has to do the right thing and take care of these players until they’re able to find a way back.”
Previously, Kirnan said the Wolves needed to draw an average of 750 fans or even greater to be competitive in the league financially, a goal achieved in the past two seasons.
Now with the league’s expansion to 10 teams before this past season, Kirnan says the goal is even higher heading into next season.
“That’s something we have to work on and we have to get over that 1,000-seat mark to pretty much stay competitive in the league,” Kirnan said. “It’s a more competitive league with the partners that we have and where the buildings are at, it’s not what it was one year ago or two years ago, the league is getting more competitive.”
He continued: “We have to up our game in Watertown because we have to compete with buildings that are 4,000 or 5,000 or even more. So that puts us to the test. Half the league has really large buildings and the other half doesn’t, so we have to do what we have to do to compete.”
On the ice, the Wolves finished in third place in the Eastern Division with a 22-21-3-2 record and had qualified for the playoffs.
“I would say that we were offensively challenged sometimes in which we lost games, we had defensive lapses that cost us,” Kirnan said. “We had brilliant goaltending at the beginning of the year and that flattened out and when it got better, it was back and forth.”
Watertown proved to be a streaky team which won eight consecutive games early in the season, but went on to lose seven straight games in December and had lost four in a row before the season was called off.
Still, Kirnan was encouraged with where the team was headed with the postseason on the horizon.
“I think we were peaking at the right time for the playoffs,” Kirnan added.
The Wolves franchise has made the playoffs every season in all five years in the league. It is also the only team in league history to win two Commissioner’s Cup league championships, including in 2014-15 in the team’s first year in the circuit as well as in 2016-17.