BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Blog #29 – January 21, 2021
by John Peterson
2020 is dead and gone.
I’m sure it will be a year many will want to forget. Good riddance. It’s over. Crumple it up and toss it in the trash, never to be heard from again.
Others will remember 2020 for a number of painful reasons: the COVID-19 pandemic, civic unrest, political division, or sports and entertainment coming to a halt.
Some might even look back on 2020 with fond memories, such as a promotion at work, a wedding, a new baby or a fun vacation.
The emergence of a new year offers a fresh start—at least from a calendar’s perspective—and let’s hope that 2021 brings joy, positivity, health and happiness to many more people than its predecessor.
One thing I’m going to try to do better this year is think and speak with more optimism, and appreciate something different every day. So I wanted to start off 2021 with a blog focusing on some of the positives of 2020, while listing a few things we can look forward to this year.
Throughout the next few weeks, we’ll dive into some noteworthy hockey-related topics, including a glance at what some of our former players are up to during a strange 2020-21 season.
But for now, let’s flash back to the innocent days of early 2020.
The Kalamazoo Wings saw a five-game winning streak come to an end on New Year’s Eve 2019 with a 6-2 loss to the Indy Fuel at Wings Event Center. That sparked a difficult start to 2020 that included five straight losses in January, before the team turned things around.
Following just three home games in the middle of the year’s first month, the K-Wings embarked on a season-long six game road trip. Kalamazoo picked up points in the first four games, including a dramatic comeback victory in Tulsa, capped off by a pair of Matheson Iacopelli breakaway goals. The team then continued on to Kansas City and Indianapolis, rattling off three consecutive wins.
The K-Wings returned to Wings Event Center after three weeks away, winning back-to-back home games against the Mavericks and Fort Wayne Komets. One week later on a slate of pink ice, the team honored cancer survivors in an emotional pregame ceremony. Justin Taylor’s end-to-end breakaway goal in overtime bookended a special night for the Kalamazoo faithful with a raucous celebration following the team’s first win of the season against Toledo.
Other highlights in February included Luke Sandler’s first pro hat trick the next night against Brampton, Kyle Blaney’s buzzer-beating tiebreaking goal to topple Wheeling on Wizards, Wands and Wings Night, and Jake Hildebrand’s memorable 1-0 shutout against the Fuel at Indiana Farmers Coliseum (in a shootout). Oh, and after a seven-hour overnight bus trip, the K-Wings trounced Kansas City 8-2 the next night (Leap Day), behind a hat trick from David Pope.
Nobody foresaw a premature ending to the season just 11 days later, but the K-Wings added a few more memories as the team inched closer to the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division.
The team welcomed Leslie David Baker to Kalamazoo March 6. The actor, who played Stanley on the hit TV Show “The Office”, dropped the ceremonial puck, mingled with sponsors and spent most of the night signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. The K-Wings beat Wheeling again, this time by a 4-2 score.
Personally, my favorite memory came the next day at Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. Following the Komets’ pregame ceremony honoring legendary broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emrick, I was fortunate enough to meet my idol. Doc even joined the broadcast during the third period.
The next week was a whirlwind. It was one very few of us will forget. While the week ended in shock and disappointment, let’s keep with the theme of positivity. We started that week in early March learning it was likely we’d have back-to-back sellouts for our first-ever Green Ice Weekend.
Obviously, we were extremely bummed to have to cancel those games. But due to a scheduling conflict, we installed the green ice early, meaning our final game of the 2019-20 shortened season…was played on a Wedneseday (on green ice).
When the sting subsided from the abrupt end of the season, the community rallied together in support of front line workers and healthcare professionals. This example of gratitude and appreciation is one that’ll stick out for me as a positive to come from 2020.
Whether it included donating time, money or resources to those who needed it most as the situation unfolded, this community came together in inspiring ways. Many companies provided cleaning supplies and latex gloves to hospitals. Some showed their appreciation through extra patience and kindness when shopping at grocery stores.
The K-Wings staff, coaches and a handful players decided to film videos thanking front line workers with hockey stick taps. Working behind the scenes on the planning for that video, specifically, I was so impressed by the response from our players and staff.
Many of these players had just returned home after being rushed out of town to safely return to their families. With no obligation to do team activities during the off-season (ECHL contracts expire as soon as the season ends or playoffs end), these players could have just ignored my texts and calls.
Several players, including Matt VanVoorhis, Ben Wilson, Austin Farley, Austin Lotz, Ian Edmondson and Boston Leier recorded videos with ‘Thank You’ messages to add. Everyone in the front office joined in as well, and Head Coach Nick Bootland got help from his kids to wrap up the video.
Another great showing of support came in the form of the ECHL Player Relief Fund, set up to offset some of the financial burdens players faced when the season ended weeks earlier than expected. This was set up by the ECHL and the Pro Hockey Players’ Association, backed by league sponsors and funded through generous donations from hockey fans all throughout North America.
While following the guidelines of health experts throughout the summer, the K-Wings coaches and staff quickly got to work preparing for the 2020-21 season. We were hopeful the pandemic would be under wraps by the time the puck dropped on the ECHL season.
For starters, we’ve all worked from home since mid-March 2020 and that hasn’t changed. We’ve held regular staff meetings via video chat, safely gathered once or twice in small groups when appropriate, and charged ahead as if we were starting on time.
The web series we started early in the off-season, Just Wingin’ It, was set-up initially to offer the fan base a fun, behind-the-scenes look at what was happening in the lives of players, coaches, staff and alumni of the team. I’m not sure we expected to surpass 30 episodes by Christmas, but thanks to our great fans for watching, the show continued into 2021.
Our sales team devoted so much time to planning for a strange season where we’d have to have pods of seats separated at a safe distance and a limited number of fans allowed in the building, due to state restrictions. These reps wanted to make sure our passionate and dedicated season ticket holders had their voices heard.
Poor Michael McFadden orchestrated a tentative Promotional Calendar that we planned to roll out, and then had to change it two or three times due to several schedule changes.
Keli Ekola was in constant contact with hotels and bus companies for team travel, which obviously changed numerous times as the league’s start date kept getting pushed back.
Team Governor, Toni Will, met regularly with the ECHL’s Board of Governors to share ideas, provide updates from each of the league’s 26 markets, and determine the best way to go about playing a season with as many teams opting-in as possible. She also took part in a special weekly ECHL COVID Committee setup to monitor the developments.
The K-Wings coaches put in countless hours watching film, adjusting team systems and philosophies, and tirelessly recruiting what looked like a very strong team. Returners, such as Justin Taylor, Tanner Sorenson, Jake Hildebrand and Kyle Blaney joined newcomers like Mathieu Roy, Mitch Hults, and Brady Vail. This team had the potential to be very, very good.
Most importantly, through it all, our fans and the Kalamazoo community stuck by us during a constantly-changing year. We all shared our disappointment of missing hockey, enjoyed hearing a variety of stories from a diverse group of K-Wings guests, and developed hope for the season ahead. Our fans showed excitement with each player signing announcement, sadness when we learned of the sudden passing of former player Adam Comrie, and joy when alumnus Yanni Gourde lifted the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
When the time came to make the extremely difficult decision in the eleventh hour to opt-out of the 2020-21 season, our fans lifted us up. The response we received was overwhelmingly supportive and understanding, knowing our decision was purely based on the safety of our hockey community.
For that, we are truly grateful.
Sometimes it helps to focus on the positive. Maybe 2020 wasn’t so bad after all.
COMING TOGETHER AGAIN
Now what can we all do to tackle 2021 with optimism, appreciation and kindness?
It seems simple enough, but I know it can be a struggle sometimes to stay positive. Lately I’ve found it difficult to keep a “glass half full” mindset all the time. It takes effort, encouragement and support from friends and family every now and then. But that’s okay.
I’m not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions (mainly because I always forget what my resolution was by February or March). This year, I’m keeping it simple. Find something different every day that I appreciate.
Maybe it’s a distant memory, a new show on Hulu, a walk around the block or a good nap. Maybe it’s cooking something different for dinner, a rare sunny day or a random phone call.
The thing I’m most looking forward to in 2021 is hockey returning to Wings Event Center. Sure, October seems like a long way away. I get it. The 2021-22 season starts in a little less than nine months. But it’ll be here before we know it.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to bettering myself and those around me. I want to learn more from my coworkers, reconnect with old friends and make new ones. I want to read more, become more informed and dedicate time to a cause that is not self-serving.
We all can find things to look forward to while we wait for October to get here. In just a few short months, it’ll start warming up here in Michigan. Is there a more beautiful place to enjoy the summer months? I’ve lived in Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma and Minnesota (which comes close), but I think Michigan takes the cake.
Whether you enjoy golfing, hiking or fishing, there’s always something to look forward to in the summertime. Additionally, now that the COVID-19 vaccine is starting to get distributed—shout out to Pfizer!—we can find hope that we’ll get this pandemic under control and start to get back to some sense of normalcy again.
Then finally, as the leaves start changing color and we reach the home stretch, hockey will be right around the corner. Training camp brings promise. The home opener brings relief and excitement. And we’ll hit the ground running at Wings Event Center with a common goal: to see old friends and make new ones, to enjoy old traditions and create new themes, and to watch K-Wings hockey together again.
Yep. 2021 will be OUR year. Who’s with me?
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to email@example.com. Enjoy!