DES MOINES – Minnesota is the ultimate goal, one last step on a long journey, and it’s so close — a straight shot up Interstate 35 — the Iowa Wolves and Iowa Wild players can almost see it.
For now, they are grinding away in Des Moines, a place most never expected to live when they grew up dreaming of playing in the NBA or NHL.
With about 635,000 residents in its growing metropolis, Des Moines has become the minor league hub for the Timberwolves and the Wild, whose feeder teams play in spacious Wells Fargo Arena, surrounded by the city’s unexpected charms.
“Des Moines has been incredible,” Iowa Wolves coach Scott Roth said last weekend. “I think it’s a great minor league town.”
Roth’s Wolves were getting ready to play the Salt Lake City Stars in a Friday clash, followed one night later in the same arena by an Iowa Wild game against the San Diego Gulls.
It was a showcase weekend for the city recently named the No. 1 minor league market in America by the Sports Business Journal.
“The arena’s almost too big, too nice,” Roth said. “When you get 3,000 or 4,000 fans in here, you really can’t feel it.”
Wells Fargo Arena, which locals call “The Well,” can seat 17,000 people. Since opening in 2005, it has hosted the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and staged concerts by Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney, among others.
The Wolves and Wild cover the upper deck with black curtains for most games, hiding unused seats. The Wolves drew 3,923 for this Friday game, and the Wild followed with 6,922 for its Saturday “Star Wars Night” promotion.
“You’ve got a pretty rabid fan base that’s just learning the sport of hockey,” Iowa Wild President Todd Frederickson said. “So we see this as unlimited potential, and you can’t beat the proximity to St. Paul.”
The Wild moved its American Hockey League affiliate from Houston to Des Moines in 2013. The Timberwolves are new to Des Moines. They were among six NBA teams that purchased new affiliates this season in what was once the D-League (D for development) and now called the G-League (for sponsor Gatorade).
Minnesota basketball boss Tom Thibodeau asked Roth to coach the Iowa team and implement the organization’s systems. Roth, who spent two seasons in the same league as Bakersfield’s coach a decade ago, didn’t hesitate.
“Like anywhere else in this league, this is not where anyone wants to be,” Roth said. “But it’s a bridge.”
Wolves’ new path
Outside the arena, the Center Street pedestrian bridge spans the Des Moines River, with its modern arch pointing toward the Iowa State Capitol’s golden dome.
Fans see that view on the short walk from the arena to the downtown hotels, and from there, it’s just a few more blocks to the bustling bars and restaurants along Court Avenue.
Walkers can take skyways from those restaurants to the arena, but there are multiple detours with all the new buildings under construction. In the downtown Kaleidoscope Mall, a sporting goods store called The Stadium is filled with Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones gear — but nothing featuring the hometown Wolves or Wild.
On the way to Wells Fargo Arena, 7-year-old Jerad Graves asked his mom if they were heading to see an NBA game.
“I said, ‘It’s kind of like an NBA JV team,’ ” Rene Graves said. “He loved that analogy. He was excited to see it.”
Three nights after drawing just 2,098 fans for their victory over the Austin Spurs, the Wolves almost doubled that attendance for this game against Salt Lake City.
It helped that 6-11 center Justin Patton was making his long-awaited professional debut. The former Creighton star was the No. 16 overall pick in last June’s NBA draft but broke a bone in his left foot last summer.
Despite the short distance from Des Moines to Minneapolis, just 245 miles, the Timberwolves haven’t shuttled players back and forth nearly as much as the Wild. Those transactions happen less frequently in the NBA, in general, because fewer players take part in each game.
But Patton’s injury underscored the importance of this G-League move for the Timberwolves. Two years ago, when they wanted Tyus Jones to get playing time, they sent him to Boise, Idaho, which was a Utah Jazz affiliate.
Now, Patton, Anthony Brown, Melo Trimble, Elijah Millsap and others are running Thibodeau’s plays in Iowa, so they’re ready if their chance comes with the Timberwolves.
Tapping Iowa’s loyalty
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said the team considered Rochester, Fargo and Sioux Falls as potential G-League hubs before buying the franchise formerly known as the Iowa Energy.
Taylor noted how well the Iowa Wild has drawn, along with the Class AAA Iowa Cubs. Wells Fargo Arena also is home to the Iowa Barnstormers, an Indoor Football League team that once launched Kurt Warner’s NFL career.
Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, sees Des Moines’ potential but isn’t promising this move will bring a profit.
“I think most of the teams, the goal is to come close to break even, if things are run well because you’re putting money in to develop players,” he said.
Sitting courtside at his first Iowa Wolves game, Taylor said it would help to acquire a prominent player with Iowa ties, as his Lynx have with Lindsay Whalen and the Timberwolves have with Jones.
Last month, the Iowa Wolves drew 4,032 for the Santa Cruz Warriors, and hundreds came wearing Iowa State gear, cheering for former Cyclones star Georges Niang. Nate Rushing, 40, was among the Iowa State fans who watched Niang score 19 points that game.
“I felt bad for our [Wolves] players,” Rushing said. “He got more applause than our whole team.”
Growing new hockey fans
Sometimes, Iowa Wild coach Derek Lalonde teases his Des Moines neighbors.
“I could walk Sidney Crosby down my road, and no one would know him,” Lalonde said. “But if I walk the third string D-back from 10 years ago of the Iowa State football team, my neighbors would be all over him. It’s the reality of it.”
Hockey is not one of the 11 sports sanctioned by the Iowa High School Athletics Association. Skating rinks are hard to find in large swathes of the state.
Lalonde coached Green Bay in the amateur-level United States Hockey League and made the rounds through Iowa, which has five USHL teams — Sioux City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Des Moines.
“I secretly knew Des Moines was a pretty nice city,” said Lalonde, an upstate New York native.
But previous AHL efforts there had failed. Last decade, Des Moines had the Iowa Stars (a Dallas Stars affiliate) for three seasons and the Iowa Chops (Anaheim Ducks) for one, but neither developed much traction with fans.
When the Wild moved its AHL affiliate from Houston to Des Moines four years ago, a primary goal was growing the sport of hockey in Iowa. Schools weren’t offering floor hockey in their phys-ed curriculum, for example.
So the Iowa Wild purchased floor hockey equipment for those schools, along with one free ticket and an Iowa Wild jersey for each student.
“It was our thought if we could get more kids in Des Moines wearing Iowa Wild jerseys, that would translate into more fans for us,” Frederickson said. “And eventually it would translate into more Minnesota Wild fans.”
Next step: playoffs
The Iowa Wild averaged about 5,800 fans per game for its first three seasons, but the on-ice product was historically bad. The team won just 32 percent of its games. Things improved last season, under Lalonde, and the team entered this weekend 12-8-6, tracking toward its first playoff berth.
“I truly believe if they get a playoff team in here, this team’s popularity will take off,” said Adam Swangel, 41, a season-ticket holder from Des Moines.
Fans watching the San Diego game could see former Gophers captains Justin Kloos and Kyle Rau playing on the same line. Luke Kunin, the 20-year-old forward who played 17 games for the Wild this season, was rebuilding confidence.
Most of the team’s players live in one of two neighboring apartment complexes in West Des Moines.
“Des Moines is a little bit smaller, but it’s almost like Minneapolis,” said Kloos, a former Mr. Minnesota Hockey from Lakeville South. “There’s a lot of stuff to do. It’s a similar lifestyle, similar people.”
The Iowa Wild plays with the energy of a team that has had 11 of its players promoted to the NHL already this season. Four promotions (Kunin, Christoph Bertschy, Landon Ferraro and Zack Mitchell) came the same night, after the Wild had a slew of injuries in Chicago.
“We went into the office, and they said, ‘Hey, you guys are gone,’ ” Ferraro said. “It was about 10 o’clock, and they had the car service set up for 11:15. You race home, throw whatever you can into a suitcase, and go.”
The fortunate ones get that chance. The rest keep striving to cross the bridge.