Anybody who has tuned in to a Chicago Wolves broadcast in the past 12 years knows color analyst Bill Gardner does not pull punches when it comes to his on-air critiques of the team. If he sees a mistake from a Wolves player, he’ll describe it as such rather than downplaying it or making excuses for the player, a rare trait among today’s crop of TV sports analysts.
That said, Gardner isn’t looking to call players out just for the heck of it. The guy wants to keep his job, after all! But when something is deserving of criticism, he’ll let viewers know. And that’s something most people appreciate.
When Howlin’ Wolves (which, less face it, is only this guy who seems really excited about having $40 in his hand for some reason) sat down with Gardner this week, it was to find out what he thought of the Wolves regular season and their playoff chances. In typical Gardner form, he told it straight, leveling criticism where necessary and offering praise where earned.
What follows is an edited version of that 20-minute conversation, which took place Tuesday at the Wolves’ practice facility in Hoffman Estates. By the way, Howlin’ Wolves discovered with Billy, you don’t really need to ask many questions to get 20-minutes worth of material from him. The guy certainly isn’t shy! (I kid, I kid)
The Wolves face the Rochester Americans in a Calder Cup opening round best-of-five series beginning tonight in Rochester, N.Y. Game 2 will also be in Rochester before the series shifts to Allstate Arena for Game 3 on Thursday. Chicago is in pursuit of its fifth championship and third Calder Cup crown, but has only one series victory since winning the Cup in 2008.
HOWLIN’ WOLVES: Did you see winning the Midwest Division as a legitimate possibility as the season progressed?
BILL GARDNER: No. We talked a little bit about this on air during the last game, and (Jason) Shaver said, “Johnny (coach John Anderson) is really the only guy who said we can still win the division.” I said, “I would have bet my house on it that it wouldn’t have happened.”
I just never thought of that being a possibility. For a player to say, ‘Yeah, we thought we could finish first,’ looking back with 10 games to go, I don’t know if that would have been the truth. They wanted to, but I don’t think you’d think that would probably happen. For Johnny, his goal was to do that. He seemed, to me, the only one that probably felt they could do it. That’s just the way he is.
It’s an amazing accomplishment. It’s too bad that in this area it’s not such a big deal. I’m not sure how many people understand or realize that we never were in first all year until the last game of the season. Every other game was over and we’re still playing, and that’s on the line for the third period. I think that’s a huge feat, especially in sports to have that happen after 76 games. It’s a feather in their cap to work that hard.
HW: What is the potential for this team in the playoffs? How far can they go?
BG: We’ll look at the Western Conference because we don’t know anything about the Eastern Conference. I think every team legitimately has a chance to win. Even Oklahoma City that just got in, if you look at the talent pool that they have, and if their goaltending’s good, they can be a good team. Now Texas is the wildcard because they are so good but can they keep that up, can they sustain what they’ve done all year.
So, the little things have to fall into place. Your goaltending has to be pretty much the best. And we have Jake (Allen), so that’s a huge positive. The one thing that I really—and I’ve talked so much about it that it’s worn me out—is the power play. Special teams are such a big part of playoffs. If the Wolves struggle with scoring goals on the power play …. It seems like in playoffs, 5-on-5 or 4-on-4 hockey gets tied up and then it becomes a special teams affair. Can this team turn it around in the playoffs and score some goals? I’m not saying that’s going to knock them out, but it’s an area that needs, if they’re going to win, it has to get better. It can’t be dead last. You can’t score one every 10 times.
The depth of the team. They have so many defensemen now (12 on the roster as of Friday), the hardest part is where do you put guys, and who do you play? As good of a talent pool they have for defense, I still think it’s the weakest area. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re so good they think it’s going to be easy. If you look at even the last few weeks—and this is something Johnny talked about—the shots against, most of that was problematic from defense just making poor decisions and giving pucks away and relaxing a little to much. As good as they are, and as much as I like them, they still have to tighten up and play stronger defensively. You don’t want to have to rely on your goalie to win every game. You need to be better in your own zone. Jake will be there to stop the puck, but you’ve got to be smarter and cleaner in your own zone.
HW: To me, Hakanpaa seems like he’s come the farthest in terms of development among the defensive corps.
BG: And quickly. What people forget and don’t understand is you’re in a new world. He’s from Finland and he comes over and just the life alone, never mind adapting to the game—smaller ice, his size—just life and getting a fixture in your own head about living. To me, I played in Europe and you go through that. You’ve got to have some pretty good things surrounding you. And I think he’s done that. It’s been one of the areas he’s more at ease with. He’s a very smart, intelligent guy. He speaks very well. And confidence. It’s all about confidence.
But I agree. I don’t know what they’re going to do with so many guys. Maybe it’ll change game-to-game depending on what happens, too. At least you know now that he can play. And I think that’s the message that has to be sent to some of these guys that don’t dress is, ‘listen, you could be in here tomorrow so keep your head up, work hard.’ No matter what you learn, you want to play. But playoffs is so different, they’ll learn no matter what just being around it.
HW: How much has it meant to have the Harper-Cannone-Davies line producing like it is?
BG: I’m sure it’s going to be well-documented by every team. I watched (Rochester coach) Chadd Cassidy (Monday) on their website. He had a little press conference talking about that he didn’t really know very much about the Wolves. They’ll scour the tapes and watch, and they’ll find out how good that line is.
I thought the Rockford game on Friday night was going to be a test for (the Cannone line). It was a big game against a team that’s played well against us, and they play a physical game against us. I mentioned that line, this is a test for them because they’re smaller, they’re skilled, they like the freedom, they like the ice. And I thought maybe that wouldn’t be the case so much in Rockford. But they came up with some big goals and played really well. To me, that was a positive sign because that is what playoffs are all about. It’s so much tougher. It’s tight. The checking, the adreneline, the intensity, it’s so much greater.
That line needs to keep it up, because the depth on this team has definitely dropped without (Adam) Cracknell, without (Alexandre) Bolduc, without (Dmitrij) Jaskin (who has since rejoined the team). That’s three huge offensive weapons. Instead of having three lines that can score goals, they really only have two with a mixture. They can’t (allow themselves to) be shut down.
HW: What are your thoughts about Ty Rattie and his performance this season?
BG: I think he matured dramatically. I would say he struggled a little bit in the early going trying to find his game. He stuck with it and he worked hard. No sulking or any of that stuff. Finally he found some chemistry with some teammates and then in the new year he’s been phenomenal. You could see the difference just with his maturity of handling the puck and the patience. The goalscorers to me, or the guys that handle the puck well, see the game at a slower pace. They have the ability to make things happen. He ended up being that guy. Thirty-one goals? Pretty cool.
HW: How would you compare Jake Allen with some of Wolves previous great goalies?
BG: Kari Lehtonen, to me, is one of the better goalies in the NHL. He had a really good career here. The lockout year when they went to the final, I still can’t believe they lost. It’s not often you get a goalie of that caliber on a team, and when you do, you should win. Jake’s that guy. He can win you a championship.
The intangibles he has. You don’t very often see rebounds off him. He plays the puck as good as anybody, maybe tries a little too much to get something going. The first three months when we weren’t very good but we won some games and hung around .500, if it wasn’t for him we could have been out of the playoffs and never even had a chance. It was solely him. He was unbelievable for a long stretch. Even when we were losing games, he kept them in them.
HW: Can it be a double-edge sword in a way because players may take too many risks knowing he can bail them out?
BG: The one thing, Johnny’s a very aggressive coach, likes to pinch defense in the offensive zone to keep plays alive. More times than not as a defenseman you have the tendency to pull out on the safety side, but if they want you to go, ‘ah I’ve got Jake in net so we’ll be OK (if I’m aggressive).’ And that’s such a great thing to have. To my point I’d made earlier about cleaning up our defense and tightening up in different areas, that’s part of the problem because he is so good they subconsciously know he’s back there, and if you make a mistake you’re thinking, ‘well, our goalie is so good.’ So it’s a positive and a negative. You do have to smarten up and play better. But it’s great to have somebody back there like him.