The Glenn Miller Orchestra with Tex Beneke helped put Kalamazoo, Mich. on the map in 1942 with the smash single I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.
The song was the best-selling recording in America that year and even went on to receive a 1943 Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Music, Original Song after appearing in the movie Orchestra Wives.
About 80 years later, the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks and the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks are banking on having a pal (or more) in Kalamazoo. The Canucks and the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL announced a one-year agreement on July 10 that will see the Wings become the Canucks affiliate team at the ECHL level.
The ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League) is a step below the AHL, meaning Abbotsford Canucks players could be sent there for more playing opportunities or for a conditioning stint. A total of 28 of the 32 NHL teams have an affiliate team in the ECHL.
It’s the fourth time the Canucks organization has linked up with Kalamazoo, as the two franchises had agreements from 1984 to 1987, 2011 to 2015 and 2017 to 2021.
Wings head coach Joel Martin is entering his second season as bench boss and director of hockey operations in Kalamazoo. Martin was an assistant coach and goaltending coach with the club from 2018 to 2022 and is also an ECHL Hall of Famer for a terrific career between the pipes at that level.
The former Vancouver Giants goalie got to know Abbotsford Canucks general manager Ryan Johnson (RJ) both when he was a player and when he was an assistant coach. Martin tried out for the Utica Comets – Vancouver’s AHL affiliate at the time – and also got to know Johnson more when he went behind the bench.
Do ex-goalies really make the best coaches? 🥅 @KalamazooWings Head Coach Joel Martin shares the positive qualities that goalies bring behind the bench and his key defensive principles.— Glass and Out Podcast (@GlassandOutPod) August 2, 2023
🎧: https://t.co/qwRiMp88NP pic.twitter.com/X6yv6TpBxu
He said reconnecting with the Canucks will be a positive for the Wings.
“We’re extremely excited,” he said. “They’ve always treated us well and I’m excited to be working with Ryan Johnson.”
Martin said his goal is to get his players ready for the call to Abbotsford, and then eventually Vancouver.
“Maybe guys get sent down to us because they’re not ready for a full-time role at the AHL level,” he said. “We help them prepare, they get more ice time and play in situations they may not get to play in Abbotsford. We also are trying to help them become pros and teach them how they can be relied on if Abbotsford needs them.”
The Wings were officially affiliated with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2022-23, but the Canucks sent Quinn Schmiemann, Chad Nychuk, and Marc Gatcomb down to the Wings as part of an agreement with the Blue Jackets. All three of those players signed extensions with the Canucks organization and had notable improvement after spending time in Kalamazoo under Martin.
“Gatcomb and Schmiemann were both short-term but RJ wanted them to get more ice time and develop their games more by getting more time to play,” Martin said. “Chucky (Nychuk) they had some real details about how they wanted him to hone in his game from junior to the pro level. They wanted us to work on just play in your own end, boxing out and becoming more reliable defensively. So we got to spend a lot longer with Chucky and he was great.”
Nychuk collected 21 points in 36 games with Kalamazoo and was selected to play in the ECHL All-Star Game. Martin said he’s pleased with how Nychuk improved.
“His strength is the offensive side and I think we were able to develop the defensive side of things and, when he got the chance to go up to Abbotsford, we were really happy,” he said.
"There's a lot of trust and a relationship that's already there... developing our young players is the importance of that relationship, and the communication has to be there." - Ryan Johnson, #AbbyCanucks GM— Abbotsford Canucks (@abbycanucks) July 20, 2023
Learn more about our new ECHL affiliation with @KalamazooWings ⬇️ https://t.co/dDcABiJoE5 pic.twitter.com/ThhSaw3zCA
Martin’s role as head coach and hockey ops includes the challenge of filling out a roster in a constantly changing league. Players come and go at a much faster rate than the AHL and it can be a juggling act to maintain a roster. There are also requests and players coming in from the affiliate team. Martin said despite the obstacles, he always looks for certain traits in players.
“The number one for me is compete,” he said. “I’m an extremely competitive person – I played in the minors for 15 years – and that compete is what I really look for. It’s something you can control on a daily basis. We’re also looking for players that can play with speed. We want to be a team that plays with pace and make other teams keep up with us.”
Martin said he’s aware that the Canucks have five goalies under contract and would love to have the opportunity to have one in Kalamazoo for part of the 2023-24 season. He said goalies have been a challenge to find for Kalamazoo the past few seasons and he has experience both between the pipes and as a goalie coach.
Wings general manager and governor Toni Will is another extremely important piece of the puzzle in Kalamazoo. She’s the first-ever female in the club’s nearly 50-year history, the first woman to be named to the ECHL board of governors and currently sits on multiple ECHL executive committees.
Will has helped guide Kalamazoo to five straight seasons of attendance increases and, according to HockeyDB, they averaged 3,537 fans in 2022-23. She has been with the Wings since 2015 and said she is pleased to be again affiliated with the Canucks.
“My overall reaction was one of positivity,” she said of the news. “We’ve had a partnership with Vancouver before and I look at it as positive, especially being connected to a Canadian team. I think that’s really important in the sport of hockey.”
Will said the Canucks’ and Wings’ relationship worked previously because of the mutual respect between the two groups and she appreciated the way the Canucks valued the Wings’ player development. She said Kalamazoo is a marquee franchise in the ECHL due to the willingness of Wings owners Bill Johnston and Ronda Stryker to spend money.
The Wings are budgeted for full-time coaching staff, including an assistant coach, assistant and video coach, strength coach, and life coach. Not all ECHL teams have those types of luxuries or other amenities that the club offers.
“We really do take care of our players,” Will said. “We have budgets larger than most so whether it comes to how our team travels, how our team lives here in Kalamazoo, how our locker room is furnished – we do everything top of the line and we’re really proud of that. We’re a small-market team and we really focus on the individual and how we can make their families feel at home.”
Will pointed out that hockey tradition runs deep in Kalamazoo. The Wings have been in existence for nearly 50 years and the city is also home to the well-established Western Michigan University Broncos NCAA Division 1 program.
“We’re very hungry for hockey out here,” she said, noting the state’s proximity to Canada. “On some weekends when WMU and us are playing at the same time, you can have 10,000 to 12,000 people watching hockey, which is a pretty big deal considering our population in Kalamazoo proper is about 75,000.”
She said a future project on the horizon will see the Wings and WMU share a new facility. The Wings Event Center is a classic building, but was built in 1974 and a modern facility is needed.
One of the reasons for Kalamzoo’s success at the box office is the unique promotional events that the team has created over the years. The Wings were the first team to host a Green Ice Game on St. Patrick’s Day and began that tradition in 1982. They have also painted the ice orange on Halloween, purple on Hockey Fights Cancer and rainbow on Pride Night.
Will also helped the Wings earn a Guinness World Record for the largest light-saber battle on Star Wars Night in 2019. She also stated that the team will have both Deaf Awareness and Alzheimer Awareness games this season. There will also be semi-pro and Dumb and Dumber theme nights.
She said one of her main goals is to make sure that hockey is for all fans and that she continues pushing the glass ceiling for women in hockey management positions.
“Even now I think there are times when I feel I’m not taken seriously at executive meetings just because I’m a woman,” she said. “I’ve run into that. And sometimes I can see the eye rolls when I bring up things like more women in leadership roles. I’d like to see more women in those roles and mentor more women to get into the positions. I think they get sick of hearing me say that but I’m not going to stop, because I think it’s important.”
The closest Kalamazoo will travel to Abbotsford this season is Coralville, Iowa when they take on the Iowa Heartlanders. They also play in Newfoundland in 2023-24. Next year will likely see the Wings take on Western teams such as the Idaho Steelheads and Utah Grizzlies. The ECHL also approved a new franchise to play in Lake Tahoe earlier this year.
The Steelheads, who play in Boise, Idaho, are the closest team to Abbotsford at about 975 kilometres – or about a 10-hour drive.
The Wings open the ECHL regular season on Oct. 21, when they host the Toledo Walleye. Martin said he may attend the Canucks Young Stars Classic event in Penticton from Sept. 15 to 18, and will be in communication with Johnson throughout the offseason.
For more on the team, visit kwings.com.