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What lockout? Wolves are on fire ... literally

  • The Chicago Wolves pull out all the stops to draw fans, including shooting off fireworks indoors. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye)
The Chicago Wolves pull out all the stops to draw fans, including shooting… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
December 05, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, @gcgarvey | RedEye

Are you jonesing for hockey but—thanks to the NHL lockout—can't get your Blackhawks fix?

Maybe you're also a dog lover looking to adopt a new furry friend. Or you want to propose to your girlfriend in an offbeat way. Or maybe you like loud music, sports memorabilia and charity fundraisers.

If the Chicago Wolves, the area's AHL hockey team, still haven't caught you, they have one last-ditch-but-admittedly-impressive piece of bait to throw in the water: fire.

Yes, fire. Shooting from the hands of their mascot, Skates, as he whizzes around the ice.

"We've always tried to have our games be something for everyone. Whether you're a hockey fan or not, I think you're going to come to our games and have a blast," said Courtney Mahoney, senior vice president of operations for the Wolves. When it comes to the pyrotechnics and fireworks show that kicks off every home game at the Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont, Mahoney can only chuckle and shake her head. "You don't see a lot of fireworks inside with a wood roof."

From the moment the first lick of flame shoots into the air in the arena, the Wolves are trying to impress old fans, create new ones and generally prove they're a premier sports draw during an NHL season that increasingly looks like it will be completely canceled.

"The way they treat their fans and the show that they put on here is bar none, to me. It's up there with any NHL team, I believe," said Wolves left winger Brett Sterling, who's played for the NHL's St. Louis Blues, Atlanta Thrashers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Sterling skated with the Wolves before heading to the NHL and now is enjoying a return stint.

Sterling, 28, is one of many Wolves eager to turn the lockout debacle into an opportunity to shine.

Fans who already are sold include Nathan Vondrak, 24, of Mount Greenwood. Vondrak says he's missing "live hockey action" with the Blackhawks being locked out, but that the quality of play with the Wolves, who've won two championships in the past 10 years, also is high.

"It's different than the NHL. It's more of a team game. There are no superstars out here," Vondrak said as the crowd erupted in cheers. "As you can hear, it's awesome in here."

Despite its minor league status, the team stacks up well financially. Last year, the Wolves ranked second in AHL attendance, averaging about 8,000 fans per game. The 2011-12 season drew in slightly more than 300,000 fans.

Some of the reason for that success may be the cost. Ticket prices run from $9-$50; Blackhawks tickets start at about $30 and can be $200 or higher from a broker.

"It's tough in this economy to go and pay the prices for an NHL ticket," Sterling said. "These games are fun, they're affordable. As you can tell, I mean, and what I hope people learn is that it's great hockey out there," too.

Hockey aside, Wolves go to great lengths to keep fans happy. Dan Christman, 33, of Warrenville, recently proposed to his now-fiancee—Colleen Kaspar, 26, of Geneva, during a game.

"I figured if I got to be embarrassed in front of a bunch of people, she might as well have been embarrassed too," said Christman, who popped the question during a "Kiss Cam" segment.

The Wolves generally play along with elaborate proposal schemes, Mahoney said, even working marriage proposals into on-ice contests. Christman said he asked for something special the day before he and Kaspar were scheduled to attend. The team, he said, bent over backward to fit them in.

It doesn't hurt that he's a fan.

"I've always liked the Wolves. They're usually on top. It's the big thing right now, especially with [NHL] hockey [being locked out]," he said. "You gotta be where the action's at."

The activities don't end with fireworks and marriage proposals, either. During a recent home game, the Wolves continued an adoption drive in which they brought dogs looking for homes to the arena.

Fans have walked out with a new member of their family. Mahoney said more than 1,000 dogs have been adopted through the program.

"Every single game we do a fundraiser. [In] November, we do a canned food drive. A bunch of our guys have awesome mustaches for Movember," she said. "Every opportunity to give back, it's really important that we do."

Two attendees watching some of the adorable dogs in the arena lobby were Laura DeDecker, 27, and Sean DeDecker, 26, of the Fulton River District neighborhood.

The two were at their first Wolves game as adults and though Sean admitted to being "sad that the Hawks aren't playing right now," they decided the experience they had was more than enough to merit a return.

"We'll be back," he said.

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