When Joe O'Donnell moved with the Minnesota Wild's American Hockey League affiliate from Houston to Des Monies, there was no nervousness. Just excitement.
Even though the broadcaster of the then Houston Aeros had only been to Des Moines a few times for games between Houston and the Iowa Chops, he was excited to put some roots in Des Moines. Especially after touring the city when the team announced it would move there.
"I was excited about the opportunity and nothing but really good things to say about the entire area," O'Donnell said. "Really all of Iowa that I've been through is more than welcoming."
But when the Iowa Wild's play-by-play voice was asked if he could believe it has been five years since that move, he emphatically answered, 'NO!'
The 2017-18 season marks the fifth year Minnesota has housed their AHL affiliate in Iowa after moving them from Houston at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. O'Donnell -- now is his 10th year with the organization altogether -- is one of the few who still remains with the team since the move.
"It's crazy because I was in Houston for five years," O'Donnell said. "Now to think I've been here for five seasons is really really odd. It's been great."
When asked on if a particular moment during the five seasons stood out to him, O'Donnell said,"Obviously the first game. There were 10,000 people [in the arena] and we won 1-0."
That game October 12, 2013. The Iowa Wild officially opened their doors at Wells Fargo Arena for their first ever game. In front 10,213 fans the Wild defeated the Oklahoma City Barons 1-0.
While things were looking up at the time, the season eventually came off the rails and set a tone for the next few seasons. "Things did not go great as that year moved along," recalled O'Donnell.
In the now-five seasons since the move, the Iowa Wild have not made a postseason appearance. The first three seasons the team was one of the worst in the American Hockey League.
Iowa finished in last place each of those three seasons, a head coaching change took place in each of the latter two seasons; meanwhile, any star prospect was getting scooped up pretty quickly by the parent club in Minnesota.
Even though the win-loss record was not good, there were still plenty of great moments on the ice.
"We've had great games, we've had great players come through," said O'Donnell. "Whether it's guys who have graduated onto the NHL or a guy like Zach Parise who comes down for a conditioning assignment. We have had hat tricks, we have had goalie fights, and we have had SportsCenter top ten plays."
The losing seasons, however, did not stunt the growth of hockey in the market according to O'Donnell.
"This is a great market. Especially now that we have been playing more winning hockey the last two seasons. It's just a great community that's growing. There's a lot of great hockey fans here. I don't think we would change a thing about we have done so far."
Although, there has been some work to do over the five years since the Wild arrived in Des Moines.
"I remember when we first got to town you walked around the farmers market downtown and there was a lot of Blackhawks paraphernalia, which did not make a lot of sense in some regards," O'Donnell said.
The team has done certainly much better over the five years in creating a brand from Iowa up to the Twin Cities. "Now I go to the Twin Cities and I see a lot of Iowa Wild stuff. We have done a good job with that."
But the brand goes far beyond selling jerseys and hats, as the Wild have been committed to growing the game all-together in Iowa.
"Obviously the youth game where our players and coaches volunteer at practices," O'Donnell said about the growth of the game. "The ability to have hockey here at Wells Fargo Arena before games and adult hockey games throughout the week and after our games sometimes. I just think the Wild have been great for just growing the game at basically every level here in Central Iowa."
While the market has grown from a hockey perspective, the focus of this year and last was on getting the Iowa Wild record up to an acceptable standard. Derek Lalonde was hired in June of 2016 to help bring improvement player development and the win-loss record.
"I want to win. I want to win badly," Lalonde said when introduced as head coach (see video below).
O'Donnell gives credit to Lalonde for helping turn the ship around.
"Derek Lalonde has done an outstanding job of bringing a vibe with him, an expectation of winning."
But Iowa's play by play voice also credits Minnesota - General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr - for helping the turn around as well. "Minnesota obviously has done a nice job of finding the veteran free agents to make sure along with the prospects and draft picks they have that proper leadership [in Iowa]."
Some of the influx of talent has been Minnesota signing some college free agents - Sam Anas and Justin Kloos - who have made some big impacts for Iowa this year. O'Donnell credits their play as well for helping the team get turned around.
"I think you look at this year's team and just the growth that a kid like Sam Anas has made from year one to year two," O'Donnell said. "And then you look at Justin Kloos as a rookie [this year]. I think he has a great chance to be on the all-rookie team. That's one thing the Wild haven't had a lot of are the end of the year recognition awards. So that's been exciting."
Following Wednesday night's loss to Chicago, Iowa currently sits five points out of the final playoff spot in the AHL's Central Division. With just eight games remaining in the regular season, it will be all hands on deck if they want to sneak in for the final playoff spot and the team's first-ever playoff appearance.
"It would be great. I'd be really happy for a guy like coach Lalonde who I know how badly he wanted to turn this thing around when he got here," O'Donnell said on a potential playoff run. "So I think that part of it is really exciting. Then the fans, the people in the organization who have been here for five years and put in so many hours behind the scenes.
"I think just from the top down - Minnesota on down - we get into the playoffs and it's going to be exciting. I think it will be the crowning achievement. Whether it's this season or next season it will be something where the market can celebrate the opportunity to play on in April."
But looking back on it all, it has not been about the wins and losses for the man who has been behind the mic for every Iowa game in their five seasons.
"Despite some of the struggles record-wise, there have always been moments throughout the season you kind of look back and say that made that game very special or made that season very special."
For Joe O'Donnell and the Iowa Wild, they hope that many more special moments -- along with a playoff appearance -- come along in the next five years and beyond.
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