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'Chop' Off the Old Block

by Staff Writer / Anaheim Ducks

By Matt Vevoda

Iowa Owner Kirby Schlegel (left) and President Steve Nitzel unveiled the Chops name, logo and colors at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on July 9.

Foreheads were wrinkled and eyebrows were raised by many upon learning that the AHL team in Iowa, recently announced as the Ducks’ new affiliate, had changed their team name to the Chops.

Did a team really take on a name that most people associate with a dinner cuisine that is paired well with apple sauce?

Knowing full well that skepticism would run rampant, owner Kirby Schlegel and the management team in Iowa took a chance, because they yearned for a moniker that would best symbolize the team’s home.

“We wanted to give Iowa a team that they feel is their own,” said the 29-year-old Schlegel, who also owns the Texas Tornado of the NAHL and the Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle Mariners AAA affiliate) of the Pacific Coast League. “When we really thought about it, one of the things that Iowa is very proud of is they are the No. 1 exporter in the country of pork.”

The pork industry is essentially Iowa’s lifeline, generating $12 billon annually in economic activity and creating more than 65,000 jobs for its residents. Local, state and property taxes from the pork industry contributes more than $70 million alone to the state's rural economy and in turn funds local schools, road maintenance and other public service programs.

“We wanted to tie the name into an asset,” Chops President Steve Nitzel said. “That was a pretty good asset in the state of Iowa.”

Visit the Iowa Chops website

Previously affiliated with the Dallas Stars, Iowa had also been known as the Stars since Schlegel and his father, Bob, purchased the team back in 2005. When the pact between the teams stopped after the 2007-08 season (in lieu of Dallas’ new AHL team, the Texas Stars, which will begin play in 2009-10), Iowa was in search of a new identity.

One of the first steps for Iowa was to find a new NHL affiliate and the Anaheim Ducks were a team also looking to make a change. Getting all of its teams closer to the West Coast has been an organizational movement for the Ducks this offseason. After switching its ECHL club from Augusta, Ga., to Bakersfield on May 21, the Ducks quickly announced that a new AHL affiliate was also in the works.

While the Ducks had enjoyed success in their three-year association with the Portland Pirates, the travel for players between California and Maine was a grind. “First and foremost it’s travel,” Ducks Senior VP of Hockey Operations Bob Murray said. “It was very difficult getting players from Portland to Anaheim. It would take a full day to get them there and get them back.”

'We wanted to give Iowa a team that they feel is their own," Chops Owner Kirby Schlegel said. "When we really thought about it, one of the things that Iowa is very proud of is they are the No. 1 exporter in the country of pork."

Providing a solution for both organizations, the Ducks and Iowa agreed to a two-year affiliation on June 3. “We met with (Ducks Executive VP and GM) Brian Burke and started talking if there was a potential deal to be had,” Schlegel said. “It was a simple process and a win-win situation for both sides.”

Having already been working several months on the task, the next action for Iowa was to unveil its new name. During the search, Iowa executives had the difficult job of weeding through more than 100 ideas. Names like the Thunder, the Aces and the Edge were bandied about, but it was one dubious name that worked its way to the top of the list.

“Crazily and amazingly enough, the only name that met 100 percent resistance at the executive level was the Chops,” Nitzel said. “Anyone who saw it and heard it initially said, ‘I don’t know, let’s look at another one.’ Once everybody reconvened, they said ‘You know what, that Chops thing is starting to grow on me’”

Unanimously agreeing to move forward with the Chops as its name, the team reached a three-year marketing agreement with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, which has had Iowa Chop as a registered trademark since 1982. Under terms of the agreement, the team can use the Chops name and the pork producers will be provided additional promotional opportunities.

With everything in place, the Iowa Chops officially became an entity in Des Moines on July 9. At a press conference held at Wells Fargo Arena, the team’s home rink, a new logo of a vicious boar’s head and the team colors of crimson, grey and black were also presented.

“Sure, we thought, ‘Is there any criticism we’re going to face?’” Schlegel said. “But at the end of the day it was something that was worth any risk. Especially in minor league sports, if people are talking it’s probably a good thing one way or another. It’s been received well.”

Coincidentally, the organization that probably best knows of a high-risk, high-reward team name is the Ducks. On June 7, 1993, Anaheim’s NHL franchise was named the Mighty Ducks as an inspiration from then-owner Walt Disney’s 1992 movie starring Emilio Estevez.

Also fighting off initial skeptics, the Mighty Ducks name became a hit. Team merchandise propelled into one of the top sellers in professional sports and the jersey was named the “most fashionable” uniform in all of sports at the inaugural ESPY awards in 1997.

"There's no question when Anaheim originally got their franchise and it was named the Mighty Ducks, the people not involved were very skeptical," Chops Assistant GM Bob Ferguson said. "It turned out to be a major marketing ploy. There definitely a parallel with the Chops. It's a very unique name."

“There’s no question when Anaheim originally got their franchise and it was named the Mighty Ducks, the people not involved were very skeptical,” Chops Assistant GM Bob Ferguson said. “It turned out to be a major marketing ploy. There’s definitely a parallel with the Chops. It’s a very unique name.”

Living in Southern California at the time of the Mighty Ducks launch, Nitzel saw the evolution of the team’s name firsthand. “I saw it take off,” Nitzel said. “The Ducks are the shining example and the benchmark of what can happen once you break through. There’s a lot of irony when it comes to that being who we’re affiliated with now.”

Since dropping the “Mighty” in their team name, and establishing a new logo and team colors in 2006 under new owners Henry and Susan Samueli, the Ducks name has continued its dominance in professional sports. “I also like what the Ducks have done the last several years,” Schlegel said. “The brand has created itself way beyond what the movie ever was.”

Under the new affiliation, the Chops also hope to replicate the on-ice success that the Ducks organization has had in the past three years. Along with the Ducks winning the Stanley Cup in 2007, the organization (adding the results of both the Ducks and Pirates) has played in more playoff rounds (14) than any other during that span. Just last season, the Pirates came within one game of the Calder Cup Final before falling to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the Eastern Conference Finals.

While Iowa made the playoffs in 2005-06 and 2006-07, they finished last in the West Division in 2007-08 and are eager to get back to winning ways. “It’s something that our fans here our crying for and thirsting for is to have that winner and most importantly, that spirit and love for the game,” Nitzel said.

Along with developing their prospects’ talents, the Ducks stress the establishment of a winning tradition at all levels of their organization. It is something Ferguson is acutely aware of after serving as the head coach and director of hockey operations at Augusta the past three years, where his teams reached the playoffs each season.

“They want their younger players to experience winning at those levels because when they make the transition to the NHL level, it’s that much easier,” said Ferguson, who returns to Iowa as an executive after being a longtime coach in the state at the Junior A level. “I feel very comfortable that the product we’re going to have on the ice this year will make the Des Moines hockey fans very happy.”

Whether it’s a shared vision of success or initial skepticism in a name, the partnership of the Ducks and Chops appears to be the right fit at the right time.

“I have to say I’m more excited about the AHL team in Iowa this year, the Chops, than I have been at all in the past,” Schlegel said. “With the new affiliation, we’re going to have a better brand of hockey. We’ve re-branded the team to really make it Iowa’s team. I feel like we’re getting some traction. We’ve gotten sales up over the last year already and the community is really talking.”

Said Murray: “They’re excited. We’re excited. It’s a fresh start for them and a new start for us. We’re going to try to put a good, entertaining team on the ice and hopefully get the people to the rink."

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