The Wolves hire former Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel to guide the franchise back to the top.
PHOTOS: ROSS DETTMAN | DESIGN & ILLUSTRATION: CHRISTINA MORITZ, IMRAN JAVED, & MORGAN WOJTKOWSKI
It's not certain how and when it became standard procedure in Manitoba to refer to the Chicago Wolves as the "Evil Empire." One report suggests a Winnipeg sports columnist tagged the Wolves as such because the franchise's thirst for championships --- and willingness to spare no expense to capture them --- was reminiscent of the New York Yankees.
Regardless of the "Evil Empire" origins, there's no debate the Wolves and the Moose tangled many times in the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League from 1996 to 2011 --- and the Wolves always seemed to get the best of the Moose. The teams met in the playoffs four times...and the Wolves won every time. That ratcheted up the rhetoric and the animosity between the fierce rivals.
"Oh, we hated them," said Scott Arniel, who played for the Moose from 1966-99 and served as their head coach from 2006-10.
So imagine the surprise and dismay on June 26 in Manitoba when the 50-year-old Arniel was revealed as the ninth head coach in Wolves history.
"I've gotten all kinds of text messages and emails from people telling me that I'm going with the enemy," Arniel said with a chuckle. "But I know (Wolves owner) Don Levin and (Manitoba owner) Mark Chipman and there's an unbelievable respect between the two owners. I knew (former Wolves coach) John Anderson very well. I knew (Wolves general manager) Wendell Young very well. Even though they were beating us, I always respected them.
Now it's Arniel's job to team up with Young and take the Wolves back to the championship. Arniel isn't a stranger to the Calder Cup Finals --- he earned the American Hockey League's 2009 Coach of the Year award after leading the Moose into the finals --- and it's already been made clear he's no stranger to the Wolves.
But Arniel is a stranger to failure. He had to deal with the concept for the first time on Jan. 9 when the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets removed him as head coach. Arniel's year-and-a-half stint with the struggling franchise started well --- the Jackets produced the second-best record in their 11-year history during Arniel's first season --- but he wound up doubting himself at the end.
"I had never been through getting fired," Arniel said. "I had been traded before, but in that case there's always somebody on the other end that wants you. It hits your ego. It hits your personality. It hits your family. It was an experience. I don't dwell on it (anymore). Before I'd dwell on it. I'd be sleepless at night thinking about things I'd change. But I've had great success as a coach.
"I spoke to a lot of people. Friends. Colleagues. It boosted me back up again. The first couple months, they were some of the toughest times of my hockey career. Since the end of February, things have been good. It helped that I helped out Vancouver doing some pre-scouting."
Arniel served as a volunteer pro scout for the Canucks during March and April, furthering a strong relationship with Vancouver's hockey operations department that began when Arniel led Manitoba (then the Canucks' AHL affiliate) to a 181-106-33 record. So when Craig MacTavish relinquished the Wolves head-coaching job in early June to return to the Edmonton Oilers as senior vice-president of hockey operations, it wasn't hard to figure Arniel would be a prime candidate to assume the reins.
Arniel was in the mix for an assistant coaching post with the NHL's San Jose Sharks, but opted for the chance to be the Wolves boss.
"When I was talking with friends and colleagues, I got some good advice about that next opportunity," Arniel said. "Obviously, I want to get back to the NHL someday as a head coach. I'd been offered a few assistant coaching jobs in the NHL this year."
Arniel met with several people, including Sharks GM Doug Wilson and Canucks GM Mike Gillis, at the NHL draft in late June before making his decision.
"It's a great organization in Chicago that wants to win and wants to put a good product on the ice," Wilson said. "It's one of the most quality jobs out there."
Arniel promptly recruited veteran coach Mike Foligno and longtime defenseman Nolan Baumgartner, last year's Wolves captain, to become the team's assistant coaches. Foligno and Arniel played together for the Buffalo Sabres from 1986-90 while Arniel coached Baumgartner with Manitoba in 2008-10.
"He is a really intense coach, which I think is great," Baumgartner said. "I think he is really fair and someone who the guys really respect. On the other side (off the ice), he is a great all-around guy. He played the game (730 NHL regular-season appearances) and he knows what it takes to play in the NHL and he tries to pass that message on to everyone.
"That is what I remember the most when I played under him: The way he brought his message across to the guys and how he cared for his players. The work he demanded out of you was a lot, but he rewarded you for it."
As one of just four AHL head coaches who have coached and played in the NHL (only Adirondack's Terry Murray has more combined experience), Arniel has honed an unwavering vision for how his Wolves will play.
"I want my team to be an aggressive, attacking team --- a team that pressures hard," Arniel said. "I'm not a sit-back coach. I want to be very aggressive on the forecheck. We're playing a physical game."
Arniel, Foligno, and Baumgartner met in July at Canucks headquarters to discuss their plans. "We were all on the same page," Arniel said. "They were two guys who really wanted to play the same way before I even opened my mouth."
"The biggest thing for Scott is he wants to be aggressive," Foligno said. "Aggressive everywhere on the ice. Start aggressively. Counter aggressively. You look at the teams that have won the championship in recent years. They've played that way."
If this blueprint helps the Wolves claim their fifth championship in the last 15 seasons, might somebody re-apply the "Evil Empire" tag to the franchise? By the way, how did that happen in Manitoba years ago?
"Let's just say somebody put a nickname out there," Arniel said. "I'm now the leader of that."