Talking about the people his hockey club put in place, Brad Kwong knew this particular blueprint could work.
He just didn’t see it working out this well.
For a league which promised multiple first-round draft picks, the USHL delivered during last Friday’s first round of the NHL Draft. The league had seven players taken and of those seven, the Dubuque Fighting Saints had three players in forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont), defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College) and forward Mark Jankowski (Providence), a prospect who said repeatedly he would be playing next season in Dubuque.
Three first-round selections comes in Year 2 of a franchise which made its way into the league winning a Clark Cup in its inaugural season. Kwong, one of the team’s principal owners, said there was a plan but even now, what has occurred with the Fighting Saints has gone well beyond what was expected.
“I think it was surprising and we didn’t expect to win Clark Cup in the first year,” Kwong said. “We had a good sense with the hockey people and staff we had that we’d be successful.”
When it comes to those “hockey people” the first place to start should be with Kwong and the rest of the ownership. Kwong was a former hockey player at Harvard while the rest of his fellow owners Philip and Mark Falcone, brothers who are part of the Minnesota Wild’s ownership group along with Peter Chiarelli, the general manager of the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.
The group returned a USHL team to Dubuque following a 10-year hiatus and made hires which they believed could have a major impact. The franchise hired up-and-coming executive Adam Micheletti as its director of hockey and business operations. Former Maine great Jim Montgomery was then hired as head coach along with hiring Bobby Kinsella as an assistant and Joe Coombs, as an assistant and director of scouting.
All four worked together in the franchise’s first year to bring a Clark Cup and this year surpass whatever NHL Draft expectations there might have been.
“If you would have asked (about three first-round selections) four months ago…we had a good sense (Girgensons and Matheson) would go in the first round,” Kwong said. “When all those different names went up we thought Mike was going to go down and when it happened, it wasn’t a total shock. Jankowski was a surprise and we’ve heard a lot of great things and we’ll see what kind of player he is.”
USHL commissioner Skip Prince, who said he has known Kwong for 20 years, said when the two talked about bringing a team to Dubuque, Kwong’s group had an idea.
The philosophy was to take what had been done in the NHL in terms of the quality of items such as marketing and scouting then applying those ideals to work on a smaller scale to work within the USHL’s parameters.
It has turned into an organization which has used the draft to get players who had an impact with Dubuque and in the case of some, beyond. The Fighting Saints took the promising yet high-risk project that was Vinny Saponari and got him back into college hockey at Northeastern and scored 23 points in 34 games.
They helped John Gaudreau go past being a 5-6 forward into being a Calgary Flames draft pick who might have been the most impressive freshman in the nation last year at Boston College.
Maybe the success wasn’t expected this quickly but Kwong’s ownership has put together a successful model which could continue to have strong results.
“We know it is ultra-competitive and we know going on with only six or seven returnees, we are going to be a new team,” Kwong said. “That first part of the season – in the fall – there is going to be a lot of learning to be done with the talent we have coming. With Jim and his guys coaching, we are confident we can make a good run at it.”