The sharp clack of the puck hitting a player’s stick rings through the arena. It’s passed again almost immediately, zigzagging between players as they fly down the ice with the enemy team in hot pursuit. A rangy forward is the last to catch it on his stick and an eye-blink later, he tucks it neatly in the net just past the goalie’s vainly extended pad. The crowd erupts. The Wenatchee Wild are leading the game 1-0.
Despite what the scoreboard may say, the Wild, the newest member of the Western Hockey League, is more than just a hockey team. While on the surface-level fans can expect entertainment of high action games and an electric atmosphere, at its core the organization exists for the development of its players–not only as athletes, but also human beings.
The Wenatchee Wild: Team History
Originally a Junior A team, the Wenatchee Wild started out in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) in 2008. On June 1, 2015, the Wild announced they were joining the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). They remained in that league, winning multiple trophies and distinguishing themselves as an organization dedicated to the development of their players, for almost exactly eight years.
On June 16, 2023, the Wenatchee Wild’s owners, David and Lisa White, announced the acquisition of the Winnipeg ICE, a team in the Western Hockey League, and the Wild’s subsequent move to the WHL. With that transition, the BCHL team was dissolved and the ICE’s entire roster was brought to Wenatchee.
The Winnipeg ICE
Last season (2022-23), the ICE were one of the most successful teams in the WHL. They finished the regular season in first place and were painstakingly close to clinching the championship title in the playoffs, ultimately falling to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
With a star-studded roster, the team is set for an exciting season in Wenatchee. NHL fans may recognize Conor Geekie (drafted to the Arizona Coyotes eleventh overall in the 2022 NHL Draft) or Matt Savoie (drafted to the Buffalo Sabres ninth overall in the 2022 NHL Draft).
More Than A Game
The WHL has a reputation as one of the best developmental leagues in hockey and a huge stepping stone to the NHL. While an outside look can tell you a lot about player development and their growth as athletes, what isn’t shown in as much detail is the personal development aspect.
According to BetterUp, personal development is “looking inward and focusing on ways to better yourself,” and can be split into five different categories: mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical.
The WHL and the Wild emphasize that school for players aged 15-18 is of the utmost importance. The team has an academic advisor who oversees them registering for classes, which are all online. The Wild also have tutors available and work to ensure the players are practicing good time management, discipline, and study habits.
For the players who have graduated high school, the team will pay for one college class each semester. “If they want to take more, they can,” General Manager Bliss Littler said. “For the kids who age out–unless they’ve signed an NHL contract–the team will pay for them to be a full-time student for four years.”
Keeping your mind sharp isn’t just doing your homework. For the players who aren’t in any classes, like forward Steven Arp, there are other ways to train your brain. “You can still study a lot but like… no one reads anymore,” Arp said. “I don’t want to be that guy. I still read, all nonfiction. I like psychology and I like history.”
Littler added that the team has meetings every morning at 8:30. “A lot of it is teaching,” he said. “They need to show up and be ready to go.” Not only does this teach discipline, but it encourages active engagement and promotes the players’ mental growth.
The players on the team have a small social circle: they’re surrounded by the same twenty guys every day. While this may seem limited, the organization works to teach social skills, including public speaking and active listening, among others. There are regular events players attend, in which the team meets with fans, usually season ticket holders.
For example, at the beginning of September, there was a season launch party put together by the Wild’s Account Executive, Hallie McKenna, for the season ticket holders. “Events like the season ticket holder launch party are a great way for players to learn new skills in a safe environment,” McKenna said. “They are guided and supported by staff and know going in what’s expected of them, so even the most socially awkward or introverted ones get a chance to ‘practice’ how to talk to fans in a comfortable setting.” Many young hockey players focus so much on their game that they have no idea how to navigate social situations, and events like McKenna’s launch party give them the opportunity to learn those vital skills.
Although less so today than twenty years ago, the stigma that ‘men don’t cry’ still runs rampant throughout our society, arguably more so in the sports environment. It’s something teams with younger players have the responsibility to fight against. The Wild knows this, and acts on it. “There’s a lot more talk about mental health and a lot more opportunities [compared to ten years ago],” Littler said. “[We] do several different seminars on different aspects of mental health, to let the players know it’s okay to not be okay.”
Defenseman Karter Prosofsky’s story reflects this. “When I was eighteen,” he said, “I actually quit playing after Christmas because of mental health. I took the second half of the season off, and that was obviously really tough. When I quit, everyone was obviously really, really worried. And I had my dad, the GM, the head coach, everyone all offering stuff that I didn’t even know existed. Counseling and everything under the sun, they were offering, and I kind of took it piece by piece. But eventually I got through it and it was everything I needed and more. They’re just unreal.”
The resources the team and the league have for the players are indeed unreal. Not only do they provide the help when it’s needed, but they encourage their players to work through what they’re feeling rather than bottling it up or pushing it down. In a way, hockey is a form of therapy for these guys, providing a healthy environment to process their emotions without getting judged for it.
Chapels, places of worship within an institution, provide a non-denominational environment to embrace spirituality. They’re common for sports teams to have, and the Wild is no different. The Wild’s chapel is for everyone on the team, religious and non-religious.
Prosofsky, who says he’s not religious but does consider himself spiritual, plans to attend again this season. “It was so good. It doesn’t even feel like I’m at church, really. […] For me, it’s way better than just going to normal church.”
Arp, whose mom raised him Christian, also looks forward to chapel. “I’m pretty spiritual,” he said. “And it’s like… a character growth thing.” Chapel offers a safe environment for community, not only promoting spiritual growth but social and even emotional. It’s not forced on the players–they don’t have to go if they don’t want to–and all religions (or lack thereof) are welcomed with open arms.
When talking about athletes who are pursuing a professional sports career, the physical aspect of personal development is by far the easiest to dissect. The team has group workouts weekly and they’re on the ice together every day. Nutrition is also a huge focus. “Diet is everything,” Prosofsky said. “It’s 30% gym, 70% diet. You gotta watch what you put in your body. You have to stay active, obviously, and work your butt off. Both are super important.”
On top of practice and consistent workouts with the strength coach, many players take the initiative to do extra training and conditioning. “Kids will learn that as they get to higher levels when you’re done with practice, you’re not quite done,” Littler said. “Some get another workout in, some use the recovery equipment…. They take good care of their bodies to ensure they’re fresh as they can be going into the next game.”
The Wenatchee Wild’s season is now in full swing. While the entertainment aspect is one of the most fun components of the Wild, the team works hard to be an organization that develops their players as people, not just athletes. Supporting their players in the different areas of personal development–mental, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical, it’s clear the Wild is an organization that backs up their players on and off the ice.
- For more information about the Wild’s Junior A days, visit the Wenatchee Wild Ice Hockey Wiki here.
- For more information about the ICE’s elaborate history, including ownership and arena disputes, click here.
- Read more about BetterUp and their guide to personal development here.
- To learn more about chapel and Hockey Ministries, click here.