CHICAGO — It’s full circle. It’s fitting. It’s historic. All would fit the next choice to lead Chicagoland’s American Hockey League franchise into a new era.

“I’m a wolf at heart,” said Bob Nardella, who’ll be the head coach of the Chicago Wolves starting with the 2023-2024 season, and it makes sense.

He’s a Melrose Park native who was on the inaugural team, helped them to their first league championship, and has spent nearly a decade in the organization in a coaching role. Now Nardella is the 13th leader of the franchise on the ice, the first former player to ever get that job.

For a native of the area who helped to get the franchise off the ground, it’s quite a moment.

“It means everything,” said Nardella to WGN News Now about being the head coach. “Knowing everything that the organization stands for and tries to accomplish and everything involved to even the smallest little detail.”

That started when he joined the team in the 1994-1995 season, their first in the International Hockey League. After that one season, he played in Italy and Germany before returning to the Wolves for the 1997-1998 campaign and would be with the team straight through 2002.

Nardella then was then with the team for parts of the 2002-2003, 2003-2004, and 2006-2006 seasons.

During that time, he helped them to Turner Cup titles in 1998 and 2000 in the IHL and their first Calder Cup title in the AHL in 2002.

Then came his coaching career with the Wolves, which started in 2012 with two seasons as a skills development coach, three as a part-time assistant, and then a full time assistant coaching job starting in 2017.

During that time, he’s helped the team to four Central Division titles and a 2019 Calder Cup Finals appearance. Three years later, the Wolves captured their fourth championship in team history in a historic 2022 season where they set the franchise record for points in the regular season as well.

Having this unique connection with the Wolves, having been there as a player and now as a coach spanning three decades, is something the coach doesn’t take for granted.

“I’ve seen babies from when I was playing and now they’re grown up and have kids of their own,” said Nardella. “There’s generations of people that have supported the Wolves since 1994 and it’s my job not to let anyone down and do our best and put our best foot forward every single game.”

Nardella will face a unique challenge in his first year as the head coach of the Wolves since the team will be playing the 2023-2024 season as an independent. This means they won’t have an NHL affiliate to provide players for the team, which is the first time that’s happened in the AHL since 1994.

It’s a challenge that Nardella faces with Wolves general manager Wendell Young, a former teammate who was also on the inaugural squad in 1994.

“Combined with Wendell being around for 15 years, he’s seen a lot of players. His son referees in our league, he watches his games he sees even more players,” said Nardella. “My son (Bobby Jr.) plays in the league, I watch a lot of his games and I see a lot of other players. Plus in my job I see a lot of other players.

“We have it covered pretty well.”

Larry Hawley profiled the Melrose Park native and Wolves head coach on WGN News Now, and you can see that story in the video above.