WATERTOWN — In a normal year, the Watertown Wolves would nearly be opening the team’s training camp in town and preparing for the upcoming season.
Now the Federal Prospects Hockey League season is on hold at least until early December as there are several uncertainties which remain a factor because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Yet new Wolves owner Andreas Johansson is confident the Wolves will have a season of some kind this year, with likely a different look to it.
“I’m feeling good for the league, we may see some changes here and there,” Johansson said. “And it’s obviously going to be a season where however you start the season, games might get moved and things may happen along the way. But I’m very confident we’re going to have a season, we’re totally committed to that.”
Johansson, who became the Wolves’ majority owner in the offseason, the team announced in April, provided a team update as the Wolves’ free agent camp will be held in mid-November followed by the team’s training camp.
The Wolves and the FPHL hope to begin a season in the first week of December.
One of the major questions swirling around minor-league hockey is that once the season begins, how many fans will be allowed to attend games because of coronavirus precautions, depending on rules set by individual states? New York state is also home to Watertown’s league rival, the Elmira Enforcers.
“We’re feeling pretty good about it, like even if we have to start with restrictions, which we understand we probably will,” Johansson said. “We’ll probably have to start with those, whether its 25 or 50 percent or whatever it is. I think we’re confident enough that even if that’s the case, we’ll start the season like that and we’ll pray for good news that we can open up more and more as the season goes on.”
Johansson says the franchise is ready for whatever changes are in store for the season seating-capcity wise.
“Definitely,” Johansson said. “I think everybody’s ready, the owners are ready to say ‘look, even if we have to play with restrictions and whatever it is, let’s play and hope it gets better during the season.’
“And financially, yes we do need the fans because we obviously make money off the gate. But you do also generate pretty good money off the corporate sponsors and they’ve actually been really good. So, I think we’re still in a good spot.”
In the minor-league ranks, particularly in leagues like the FPHL, revenues generated from ticket sales are vital to the financial health of a franchise.
“I think financially, yes, I think it’s obviously a blow,” Johansson said. “It takes you from maybe making some profit to certainly taking a loss. So financially it’s a blow, but the big difference is of course is ultimately like I’m doing this. And Clarkie and the players, we’re doing this for the fans and for the city and if they can’t be there, of course it’s going to be different. You’re playing in an empty arena, that’s not what everybody wants. We desperately want the fans there.”
Johansson continued: “Maybe a vaccine will come out or we’ll get some more effective ways of treating things or simply politically if they start treating us different from the city, that would be enough,” he said. “If you treated Watertown and upstate (New York) a little different than New York City based on the infection rate, I think we would be fine, too.”
It’s unclear how many fans will be allowed to attend Wolves games and this number may even change as the season progresses.
“So we’re rolling with the punches, who knows what we’ll be restricted in,” Johansson said. “And for us as a team, it’s going to be a lot more work as far as isolating players and testing players and God forbid, someone gets sick. And the travel part, that definitely brings a whole different element to it.”
So far, the FPHL hasn’t released a season schedule, but Johnasson and other owners hope this will happen soon.
“We kind of had a schedule that was ready to go, and then one team in the league decided that they’re probably not going to play this season,” Johansson said. “So we’re in the process right now of finalizing a new eight-team schedule.”
He envisions a season schedule of 40 to 50 games for each team, rather than the 56-game Wolves’ schedule last season, which was cut short by the emergence of the coronavirus in March.
“It will start on Dec. 4, that’s still the same plan,” Johansson said. “If we do end playing with eight teams, then it’s kind of going to help because then you have to play fewer mid-week games and stuff that are traditionally a little tough.”
If all goes well, the league playoffs would follow the regular season in April.
“We’d love to obviously play in the spring before a full arena,” Johansson said. “But I don’t know. If they are successful with these vaccines and we’re successful in finding something that’s really effective to beat this, then I would like to say hopefully we can play in a full rink. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we had restrictions all throughout the season just because obviously they have to be extremely careful.
“The last thing you want is to pack the rink and somebody gets sick, nobody wants that. Of course we would love to have everybody as possible and still be safe.”
Johnasson is excited about the Wolves’ potential roster for the season as the team has already re-signed a host of talented players from last season.
“The team’s looking great,” Johansson said. “It’s kind of been fortunate with the Southern (Professional Hockey) League, the one that’s kind of a little above us, they went from 10 teams down to five. They basically lost two teams in Illinois, they lost a team in Indiana, they lost a team in Virginia and they lost a team in Carolina.”
Watertown also hired former Wolves’ coach Brent Clarke, who led the team to the league championship in the franchise’s first season in the league in 2014-15.
“We have a lot of returning guys, we have a lot of players coming who have played at really good levels, we have some guys coming from the Southern (Professional Hockey) League,” Johansson said. “We have some great European players that obviously we kind have to wait and see a little bit with the border situation.
“But Clarkie has done a great job of bringing in guys to certainly take it to the next level from last year. And because of his connections, he has a good name, so a lot of those guys want to come and play in Watertown.”
Some Wolves players may arrive in town as early as this upcoming week and may skate on their own in Watertown, Johansson said.
“We’re starting to get, some of the guys are coming back next week and the week after,” Johansson said. “They’re starting to come back in and practice. Our thing has always been whether you’re a sales person or you’re the coach or you’re a player — is prepare as if we’re going to have a full season. And God forbid, we’ll roll with the punches if we have to, but hopefully we’ll be in a good spot.”
Johansson added: “We just want to tell the fans we can’t wait to be back ready to play,” he said. “And to all the people that bought season tickets, we’re very grateful and we hope to be able to see you guys there. Anybody with a season ticket is obviously going to get priority if we are limited in terms of how many people we can let in.
“We’re also grateful to all the great corporate partners we have that have really stepped up,” Johansson said. “Even though it’s a difficult time for them, they’ve stepped up for us and for the team and it shows how important it is to have the Wolves and have us playing.”
WOLVES’ BUILDING ROSTER
Forward Dominik Bogdziul is the latest Wolves player from last season to re-sign with the team.
A native of Lithuania, Bogdziul totaled 21 goals and 24 assists in 37 games for the Wolves last season in his first pro campaign in North America. Among his 45 points with the Wolves, he also scored three power-play goals and two game winners.
Among those returning so far for the Wolves are forwards Jamie Lukas, Deric Boudreau, Lane king, as well as Michael and Dallas Desjarlais and defenseman Justin Coachman. The team also acquired forward Fred Hein in a trade with Danville and also signed free agent forward Eric Masters.
PRO PLACEMENT CAMP SCHEDULED
The Wolves’ pro placement camp is scheduled for Nov. 18-20 at Watertown Municipal Arena.
Those signed by the team would move on to the team’s main training camp.
Spots in the placement camp, which are limited, are $250 per player and to register, contact Clarke at 217-799-3870 or at email@example.com.