Blackhawks: Outdoor games enjoyable for new and veteran players


Blackhawks: Outdoor games enjoyable for new and veteran players

MINNEAPOLIS — Trevor van Riemsdyk figured he’d just get some pointers from his brother, James, who’s played in several of these outdoor games.

“I played in one in college at Fenway, but obviously this will be on a much bigger stage,” said van Riemsdyk, who was hurt when the Blackhawks played in the Winter Classic in January 2015. “[James] has been in quite a few. I’m sure I’ll be picking his brain the night before.”

For most of the Blackhawks’ core members, these outdoor games are becoming nearly an annual event — this is their fourth since 2009. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook are among those who have played in three of them thus far. But for some of the newer Blackhawks, this Stadium Series game against the Minnesota Wild is still a reason to bewide-eyed.

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Erik Gustafsson isn’t sure yet if he’s playing — he was reinserted into the lineup on Wednesday against New York after being a healthy scratch for two games. But he’ll have some folks watching the game regardless.

“I have some friends coming over from Sweden,” he said. “It’ll be very big. We’ll see if I play but it’ll be a great opportunity to play outside. I saw a picture on Instagram the other day; they were working on the ice. It looked pretty amazing. I just hope it’s going to be good weather.”

Perhaps the euphoria hasn’t completely evaporated for the Blackhawks’ veterans of these games. Both Kane and Niklas Hjalmarsson said they still enjoy these outings.

“It’s not like it’s our 50th time playing in one of these, it’s our fourth time. It’s still pretty unusual playing in a game like this,” Kane said. “It’s exciting. All of us enjoy it and we know that there’s, I wouldn’t say pressure on us to put on a good show, but we’re expected to be here for reason and … it seems like the NHL wants the Blackhawks in these types of events. We try to put on a good show for everyone.”

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Hjalmarsson said, “The first one is always the first one. It doesn’t matter what you do. But it’s still fun and as I said before it’s fun to kind of break the normal pattern in a regular season to mix it up and do something different and just switch it up a little bit. It’s kind of a grind, 82 games. It’s fun to have at least one that stands out a little bit and makes it a little bit more fun and you get the group together and do something different.”

Many of the Blackhawks have been through this outdoor experience a few times now. For the other half of the team, this is a new experience. Regardless of the number of times each player has been here, the outdoor game still has plenty of charm.

“The excitement level is at a different level. It brings you back to being a kid almost, and then you have to know we’re playing for keeps,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “[There are] different emotions and mindset going into the game once you’re out there. At the end of the day, everyone will have a great feeling and hopefully everybody enjoys it.”

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds. 

Nearly a year and a half since being traded to the Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson will return to the United Center ice on Thursday playing for the visiting team.  

“It’s going to be strange coming in as the away team and being in the other locker room,” said Hjalmarsson on Wednesday. “I bet it’s going to be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings.” 

This is also the first time Hjalmarsson has been back to the city of Chicago since he was traded, a city he called his “second home.” A home where he spent parts of 10 seasons, and never really planned on leaving.

“I wasn’t happy, to be honest with you,” said Hjalmarsson of the trade to Arizona. “I was shocked. It took me a couple days to actually realize I wasn’t going to play for the Hawks anymore.”

Including the playoffs, Hjalmarsson played 751 games in the Indian head sweater. Despite that and the team’s three Stanley Cup victories, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin in June of 2017.

“You kind of let it go after a while,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping all the success for the guys over here too.”

Hjalmarsson was known for his toughness, repeatedly blocking shot after shot, giving up his body, while never missing a shift. He credits his long-time teammates — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — for a lot of his success and identity on the blue line.

“I couldn’t have had better role models coming into a team,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have played on the same team as those guys and created a lot of success together. We’re always going to be connected with the Cups that we’ve had.”

The third championship won by that defense-trio was on United Center ice against the Lightning in 2015, but that isn’t the memory that stands out most for Hjalmarsson.

“The first Cup is always going to be pretty special,” said the 31-year old. “Even just going to the conference final (in 2009), even when we lost against Detroit that year, the year before was great memories too. The first time for me going into the playoffs and playing deep.”

The tables have turned now for both Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks. 

The Coyotes have yet to score an even-strength goal this season, while the Blackhawks have claimed eight of a possible 10 points thus far through five games and expect to have their starting goaltender back between the pipes. 

But you won’t hear any ill-will from Hjalmarsson, he’s still rooting for the Hawks.

“I always think that Chicago deserves to have a team in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that I wish them not to do well. It’s the total opposite. I want them to have continued success.”

Corey Crawford expects to make season debut for Blackhawks on Thursday vs. Arizona

Corey Crawford expects to make season debut for Blackhawks on Thursday vs. Arizona

The wait is almost over.

After missing nearly 10 months with a concussion, Corey Crawford said he expects to start on Thursday when the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center. An official decision will come following the team's morning skate.

"It feels good to be back to myself," Crawford said. "I'm feeling good, I'm feeling clear. ... It was a pretty long process. But I think the most important thing was not to rush anything. When I finally was out, it got to a point where I wasn’t in shape to play and it was time to rest and it’s unfortunate it took a lot longer than I would’ve liked. 

"It’s been long, but finally, just to get back and be practicing with the team has meant a lot. It’s good to get to this point now when you’re really close to playing. Practices have been great, been getting timing a little bit more and getting up to speed and reading shots and all that, so it'll be nice to finally get in one."

Crawford's last appearance in an NHL game was Dec. 23, 2017 against the New Jersey Devils when he allowed three goals on seven shots in 13:22 of action before getting pulled. So of course, emotions will naturally be running high, especially in front of the hometown crowd.

"I'm sure I'll be a little anxious getting into it," Crawford said. "Some nerves. But we'll see. We'll wait until the morning, but I'm definitely excited I can tell you that."

It's obviously terrific news for the Blackhawks, who have picked up eight out of a possible 10 points to start the season and are getting their two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie back between the pipes. It's been a long time coming, and Crawford is coming back into a healthy situation where the Blackhawks are in a good spot in the standings.

"It's great news, I'm sure it'll be exciting for him exciting for our team, exciting for our fans and the organization as well," Patrick Kane said. "It’s probably a good situation all around. Cam [Ward] has done a great job of playing in the net so far. Crow is really good in practice right now, so I’m sure he’s itching to get back, too. We’ve had a good start here. It’s something we want to keep going, and I’m sure him coming back on home ice, in front of our crowd, will be a fun one for him and for our team."

There's no doubting how important Crawford is the team and organization. While there may be a little bit of rust early on, the Blackhawks are expecting him to look like his old self.

"He means a lot to the team," Quenneville said. "We felt last year was a good example of how important he was and how well he was playing for us, as well. We’ve gotten off to a decent start and he was a big factor in it. We know that goaltending is such a big part of the team and your success a lot of nights depends on him and his consistency’s always been in place.

"But he looks good in the net. He’s been off for a long, long time. Is there rust? Do we expect rust? I think the way he’s competing and practicing and finding pucks, he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. So we’re looking forward to him getting in there and getting comfortable and how he’s feeling going forward will dictate a lot of the decisions about him going back in."