Southwest Michigan and the Mohawk Valley have always had one thing in common – the love of hockey. The similarities run deeper this season as the Kalamazoo Wings rejoin the Utica Comets in the Vancouver Canucks development system.
Kalamazoo is a city of 75,000 people located 140 miles west of Detroit in the southwestern corner of Michigan. The weather is similar to Utica, but Kalamazoo gets only 48 inches of snow a year compared to 90 inches in Utica. Kalamazoo is also home to Bell’s Brewery, which has a similar annual output to the Saranac Brewery in Utica.
K-Wings Hockey has a starting line dating back to 1974, when they were the International Hockey League's (IHL) affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. Originally wearing red, white, and blue, the Wings entertained Western Michigan hockey fans through 1999 on the IHL level. From 1999-00, the franchise operated in Madison (WI), in the United Hockey League as the Kodiaks.
After a single season in Madison, the franchise relocated back to Kalamazoo, where they were renamed the Wings in honor of the original Wings that played in the IHL, using the logo of the original Wings. Kalamazoo joined the ECHL in 2009.
The 'World Famous' Green Ice Game is the signature of the K-Wings' season and guarantees a sold-out crowd at the 5,113 Wings Event Center. The game played annually on St. Patrick's Day dates back to 1982, when the K-Wings were the first pro hockey team to play on colored ice.
"Legend has it that someone suggested to dye the ice – with green food coloring. Then they found out that food coloring doesn't freeze," said Joe Roberts, K-Wing's team broadcaster and public relations director. "It's a one of a kind game. The Wings were playing Muskegon in the IHL that first time. The dyeing process has come a long way since."
The K-Wings also play a game on pink ice for Valentine’s Day and a Halloween-themed game on orange ice. Last year, they raised over $100k for various charities through jersey auctions, chuck a puck and other fundraising efforts.
Comets chatter in Mohawk Valley seems to have no off-season. A similar deep affection for hockey is on-going in Southwest Michigan. "I'd say there is constant chatter; buzz," Roberts offers. "K-Wings are the only pro team in the city. It's Michigan. It's cold. You think hockey. In October, when training camp opens, interest increases."
A relationship between the Comets and K-Wings benefits the growth of the players, who for some, could shoulder the load of bringing a Stanley Cup win to Vancouver for the first time. Having skaters and goalies move up the Canucks' organizational depth-chart remains paramount for all under contract.
Evan McEneny became the twelfth K-Wings alum (2015-16) to be welcomed to 'The Show' when he made his NHL debut with the Canucks on February 25, 2017. In the team's eight-year ECHL legacy, having one dozen players come through and reach the highest level of competition creates pride in Southwest Michigan.
Fan-favorite, Darren Archibald has been a part of the Canucks organization for the last six seasons, playing a total of 73 games with the K-Wings, 256 with the Utica Comets and 16 with the Vancouver Canucks.
“Spending a majority of my first season in Kalamazoo, the organization certainly helped guide me in the right direction of how to be a professional,” Archibald stated. “I gained a massive amount of experience advancing to the Conference Finals and playing under Nick Bootland."
Curtis Valk and Alex Grenier, both K-Wings alumni were often exciting moving parts of Utica's offense during their time with the Comets. Each enjoyed 30-point seasons during their ECHL days in Kalamazoo.
To know the K-Wings is to know Nick Bootland.
Bootland provides a stability and experience behind the bench similar to what fans came to expect of Utica Comets former-head coach, Travis Green. Bootland is preparing for his tenth season as head coach and director of hockey operations for the K-Wings. Bootland, a Dallas Stars 9th round draft pick, played in the K-Wings organization for parts of four seasons ending with the 2007-08 season. In May 2008, he was named head coach. As a left-handed, right winger for the K-Wings, Bootland found the back of the opponent’s net 131 times.
"He (Bootland) is K-Wings, through and through. Ten years coaching, 13 years straight with the team. Every time Nick gets behind the bench, he rewrites the record books," Roberts tells.
With less than 100 days until the NHL, AHL, and ECHL seasons cross the starting line, the Comets and K-Wings' faithful are already fully charged.