As badly as the Alaska Wild would like another win, they would also like to draw some more fans. It seems wins and fans are two closely linked commodities.
An opportunity to increase both comes tonight at 7 p.m. at Sullivan Arena when they face the Fairbanks Grizzlies for the third and final time of the Indoor Football League season.
"When our players play in front of 1,200 fans in a stadium built for 6,000, they feel it," said first-year Wild coach Darnell Lee.
Lee said players don't play to their full potential without a good group of fans to feed off.
He should know. Before he came to Alaska, Lee spent five seasons in the Intense Football League and Southern Indoor Football League as the coach of the Louisiana Swashbucklers, where he posted a record of 60-14, won three championships and earned three coach-of-the-year awards.
He said the biggest difference between the Swashbucklers and the Wild is the lack of a fan base.
"I've never been in a situation where we have to win over the community," said Lee. "Sometimes it feels like people want us to fail."
Lee inherited a Wild team coming off a 0-14 season, during which crowds shrank as the losing streak grew. With Lee in charge, the Wild are off to a 2-2 start, with each of their losses coming by one point.
Saturday, the Wild lost to the Chicago Slaughter 34-33 after making a furious comeback in the second half. They made up a 13-point deficit and held the Slaughter scoreless in the second half until the final 31 seconds, when the Slaughter's Jarrett Payton punched in a one-yard touchdown run and stole the game from the Wild.
"To come back the way we did and not get the win is hard on the coach," said Lee.
Especially for a man who's known as much winning as Lee. He has played and coached his way through various leagues since 1998, finding success doing both. In 1998, Lee won a Professional Indoor Football League championship as a rookie free safety for the Louisiana Beast.
Lee knows that building a good team takes time, and he hopes his team will get the chance to improve beyond this season.
"This team is probably the most talented team I've had," said Lee. "The only difference is that these guys haven't been together for a couple years. For most of these players, it is their first season playing indoors."
Fairbanks comes into tonight's game with a 3-1 record, tied for first place with the Billings Outlaws in the Pacific North division.
The Wild and the Grizzlies split their first two match-ups, with the Wild winning the most recent game on March 20th in Fairbanks. The 53-36 victory marked the first road victory in Wild history.
Fairbanks beat the Wild by one point in the first game of the season and has another narrow victory, by two points, over the Tri-Cities Fever.
The Grizzlies have scored 191 points this season and given up 190. The Wild have scored 162 points while allowing 138, the fewest in their division.
"Fairbanks has a good, experienced coach and their guys have played together for a couple of years," said Lee. "A lot of people want to make them out to be a big rivalry, but to us it is just another game. We are working hard one game at a time."
The Wild play their next two games on the road. They don't play another home game until May 16, against the Billings Outlaws. That game is the first of three straight home games.
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or call 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS