It’s time for the final installment of the “Get to know the Midwest division” series. I’ve yet to find a blog that covers the IceHogs exclusively, so Chris, who writes a fantastic blog about the Blackhawks, was nice enough to answer some questions about our new rivals. You can read his blog at The Third Man In, or follow him on Twitter.
Chasing Checkers – What can you tell us about hockey in Rockford?
Third Man In - As a franchise, the IceHogs have been around for twelve seasons. They joined the American Hockey League in 2007, a few months after winning the United Hockey League Colonial Cup championship. That league has since folded into the IHL. Rockford had been a low-level affiliate (the UHL was a step below ECHL) of the Nashville Predators from 2004-07, thus benefitting on cast-offs from the Preds’ AHL-affiliate, Milwaukee.
Rockford is a city of 153,000 people, the third-largest city in Illinois. The IceHogs’ home rink, the MetroCentre (although the naming rights will soon be sold), is 90 miles northwest of Chicago, 90 miles southwest of Milwaukee and 140 miles north of Peoria; homes to their other divisional opponents. The city’s Rockford Icemen youth program has won 15-consecutive combined high school varsity state hockey championships. So, the sport has been engrained in the city’s culture for some time. IceHogs’ weekend games sellout on a frequent basis and overall the team’s attendance runs at about a 73% capacity (6,000 seat arena).
CC – What exactly is an IceHog? North Carolina is famous for barbecue, and the Hurricanes have a pig named Stormy as their mascot. In a throwdown, who would win, Stormy or Hammy?
TMI - You know, I’ve never really given this question much thought. I could be wrong because I’m far from a wild game expert, but I believe an ice hog is a mythical creature. As in the saying ‘like a hog on ice’ (strong yet helpless), the idea of an agile pig on frozen tundra doesn’t add up. But I suppose if you think of it in the sense that hogs are ornery, destructive creatures that are more inclined to travel in packs during cold seasons, perhaps there’s a fit there. Regardless, unless Stormy brings some backup, he probably doesn’t stand a chance. Hammy has a brother, “Hammer,” who shadows Hammy everywhere. And pigs don’t fight fair.
CC – What style of play do the IceHogs employ? Were they a high flying offensive machine? Did they rely on defense, goaltending and toughness?
TMI - Being a developmental ground for the Chicago Blackhawks, the IceHogs have attempted to emulate the style of their parent club. To this point, that has meant a high-tempo, aggressive approach. Rockford will come hard on the fore check. Kick-starting the offense from their own zone, they employ the stretch-pass to back the defenses up and widen the neutral areas for entry otherwise. Coaches implore the defensemen to join the rush, pinch for second and third-chance opportunities or simply to retain possession in the offensive zone. And their penalty-kill is extremely aggressive, often overly so. I wouldn’t call Rockford’s approach high risk/reward. Although with so many young players last season, it did work out that way. One of Rockford’s weaknesses has been channeling their toughness intelligently and their ‘toughest’ player of a year ago, Kyle Hagel, is now with the Peoria Rivermen. Look for this year’s team to be scrappier, but not really rock’em-sock’em.
Offensively, Rockford will be led by second-year pros, left wing Jeremy Morin and center Brandon Pirri. Both turned twenty years of age in the spring. Morin has the hands to chip in at the NHL level right now, but is probably in need of a full year here to complete his all-around game before he’s ready to be a full-time Blackhawk. Pirri had a rough start to his rookie season after one year at R.P.I., often getting beaten easily on puck battles, but finished strong. He’s has great hands and is a budding young set-up pivot. Morin is coming off a concussion that ended his 2010-11 season in mid-January.
Beyond those two, Kyle Beach, the 11th overall pick in 2008, is capable of scoring 30 goals once he gets his act together. This is a do or die season for Beach with the organization, which has grown frustrated with his misappropriated focus and attention to detail. Brett McLean, 33, a former Blackhawk, returns from the Swiss league to provide the leadership and some second-line scoring.
Undrafted third-year star Brian Connelly will push the attack from the blue line. The Hawks are excited over all the raw talent in Dylan Olsen (28th overall in 2009), Shawn Lalonde, Ryan Stanton and Joe Lavin – each of whom will be regulars with Connelly on the IceHogs’ defense. Odds are the organization will fill out the blue line with at least one veteran signing. Last season the defense core was prone to mental errors and unforced turnovers on their half of the rink, and they’re now without NHL veterans Garnet Exelby (Grand Rapids) and Jassen Cullimore (Germany) to help settle the action and reset when things go awry. So this is still one area of concern.
In net, Yale graduate and Mike Richter-mentored goaltender Alec Richards is the front-runner at this point to be the number one guy. Of course this is subject to change if Ray Emery wins the Blackhawks’ back up job in his training camp tryout. Which would drop the highly-touted Czech backstop Alexander Salak to the AHL for the time being. The IceHogs also signed Carter Hutton to an AHL contract. He was previously with the San Jose Sharks’ organization. Hutton didn’t get into a game, but he was Antti Niemi’s backup on thirteen occasions last season when Antero Niittymaki was battling a lower-body injury. The rest of Hutton’s time was spent with in Worcester, where he went 11-7-2 with a 3.01 GAA and .902 save percentage. Those numbers are in line with Richards’ (17-21-1, 2.89, .899) so it add goaltending to the list of question marks.
CC – How is the relationship between Chicago and Rockford? Can you name a couple of players who moved up through Rockford to make a name for themselves in the NHL?
TMI – Rockford joined the AHL in 2007 and became partners with the Blackhawks for the 2007-08 campaign. Prior to then, the Hawks’ AHL affiliate was Norfolk. The relationship works out great for both teams. The United Center and Rockford’s MetroCentre (IceHogs’ arena) are 90 miles apart. So, it’s easy to move players to and from when necessary. In the past some Blackhawks’ prospects have even kept apartments in the Chicago area and commuted daily.
Eight players from the Blackhawks 2010 Stanley Cup championship team spent significant time in Rockford before joining the big club; ten in all – Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Antti Niemi, Kris Versteeg, Colin Fraser, Troy Brouwer, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jordan Hendry, Nick Boynton and Bryan Bickell. Chicago’s newest number one goaltender, Corey Crawford, spent three seasons in Rockford and two before that with Norfolk before graduating to full-time to the NHL.
CC – The IceHogs had a challenging season in 2010/11, finishing at the bottom of their division. What do you forecast the team being like this season? What three players should be on our radar as guys to watch?
TMI – Rockford got off to a mediocre start and followed it up with an uninspired, atrocious middle portion of the season. Once the pressure was off and playoffs were an unimaginable dream, the IceHogs turned a corner and finished the season as strong as any other Western Conference foe. Trouble is, once out of the race and loosened up, the players weren’t competing for anything other than pride, or jobs in some cases. So, it’s tough to measure exactly what their 17-5-1-1 finish signified.
The team will be just as young as they were last season and less-experienced up front. Gone are respected leaders Jeff Taffe, Evan Brophey, former Hurricanes’ product Wade Brookbank, Exelby and Cullimore.
Aside from those I’ve mentioned already, the most intriguing prospect coming into the season is right winger Jimmy Hayes. The 6-foot 5, 235 pound Boston College product left school a year early in turning pro. Hayes came to the Blackhawks from Toronto at the 2010 NHL Draft in exchange for a second round pick (used to take Bradley Ross). Hayes showed great improvement in this summer’s prospect camp from last, and his huge frame has just begun to fill out nicely. He has good touch in his hands (21 goals in 39 games during his junior season) and goes to the net hard. It will be tough for defenders to handle Hayes and he should win many a battle along the wall. His size and strength brings with it an aspect the ‘Hogs simply did not have last season. Beach is tall (6-3) but hasn’t filled out to date.
Rob Klinkhammer is a fan favorite, in part because his name is fun to say. However, the winger was a scoring-chance machine in ’10-11. Unfortunately for the Klink and his team, he traversed the season terribly snake bitten. His breakaway chances alone legitimately numbered around twenty, many on the penalty kill. He converted on just a couple and went 0 for 3 on penalty shots. If he can turn that trend around this season, he’ll be a 25 goal scorer. A laborious defender and shot blocker, Klinkhammer, 25, is still one of the more consistently effective players on the IceHogs. Power play units need to make note when he is on the ice.
Rockford will have at least seven rookies and another nine second-year players on this year’s roster. As of the moment, the team’s average is 22.7 years of age, which will be very close, if not the youngest team in the AHL if they don’t add some older vets.
They also have a first-year head coach. Ted Dent takes over for Bill Peters, who left for an assistant’s position on Mike Babcock’s bench in Detroit. Peters leaves a good 122-97-21 record over three regular seasons, but went 0 for 8 in the playoffs and missed last season in a deep division that sent five teams to the postseason. Dent has served as an assistant for the Blackhawks at the AHL level for the past five years. He’s been very popular among the players, though it will be interesting to see how this plays out now that Dent is the boss and can’t always be the nice guy.
There are questions of if this young defense with good potential can eliminate the shortcomings it exhibited last season. Dylan Olsen left Minnesota-Duluth (the eventual NCAA Champions) on New Year’s Eve. He has the potential to be physically dominant in the future and reminds scouts of Dion Phaneuf when he carries the puck.
Overall Rockford is stocked with potential. Though, they will have to overcome their own inexperience and typical minor league roster turnover.
CC – What can you tell a new Western team about life in the West? Who is Rockford’s biggest rival, and other rivalries within the Midwest?
TMI - No question, the Chicago Wolves are Rockford’s biggest rival. Now with Wolves becoming the affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, currently the Blackhawks most-hated rival, the match-up has dialed up a notch or two. The team’s home rinks are 75 miles apart and off the same major interstate, I-90. Peoria would come in a close second. The Hogs-Rivermen series got pretty nasty at times in ’10-11.
We’ll see soon when the AHL finally releases the 2011-12 schedule, but I imagine the Checkers will spend 7-10 days at a time stationed in the Mid-West a few weeks this season. They can even hub themselves in Chicago if they so choose. Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford and Peoria are all swift bus trips. So, Charlotte will be at a disadvantage as far as travel is concerned in the West Division. In one month last year, Rockford went twenty-five straight days without spending one night in a hotel.
CC – What prompted you to start your blog about the Blackhawks? What is your connection to Rockford?
TMI - No connection to Rockford. I live in Chicago, so it’s a good hike through traffic sometimes to get out there. I’d never been to a game until they hooked up with the Blackhawks. But the move was great for me as well. I always felt it was my job to follow the Hawks’ prospects closely even when they were set up in Norfolk, so this is a great opportunity to get a closer look.
I started my site originally a little more than five years ago. There may have been one or two other Blackhawks’ blogs at the time and a couple message boards. That was it. Now that the team is successful and the medium has advanced as much as it has there are probably ten times as many Hawks’ blogs. I decided to go into it over frustration with how little depth there was in Blackhawks’ coverage in local print, radio and digital media. It wasn’t a knock on the local beat writers, columnists or radio personalities; there simply was no interest in the team by mass or casual audience at the time. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane had yet to be drafted and Hawks’ home games were still not televised. Thus, there was very little space or air time allotted to the team.
My feeling was the fans the team did have, whether that number is twenty thousand or two million, deserved more. I’d been a Blackhawks’ season ticket holder since my parents got them in the early eighties and I was one of the few Bill Wirtz couldn’t drive off during the team’s ugly decline in the late 90’s through 2007. That wasn’t out of any blind loyalty to the team, but for an appreciation and passion for the game. By the time I launched my site, it had been years since my blood pressure jolted one way or another by the result of a Hawks’ game. I wouldn’t term it apathy, and I can’t pinpoint when this took hold, but being so, I felt I could provide an honest, detached perspective of the organization. I think it comes from my father. When I went to games with him as a kid he’d just sit there and study the game. When the Hawks scored, he’d barely nudge. If the other team scored, he’d simply shake his head in disapproval. You couldn’t tell if he was enjoying himself or bored. Now I’m that guy. I rarely find a game boring and I’m still enjoying myself.