Corey Crawford remembers his early days with the Blackhawks, the times where he was working his tail off in Rockford to get a call-up or hoping he would be the one they would choose to stay out of training camp. The thought would creep into his head: “maybe I never get there.”
“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t tell you that but there were a bunch of times,” Crawford said with a smile.
Crawford had a lot of good times, a lot of valuable experiences with the IceHogs. But he always kept his eye on the main goal: making the NHL. Twice he’s been named an NHL All-Star. Twice he’s been a winner or shared the William Jennings Trophy. Twice he’s won Stanley Cups. He can look back and smile now at those days when he wasn’t sure if he’d latch onto a team.
Making the NHL is tough. Staying there can be even tougher. The pressures and expectations are enormous, especially the higher you go in the NHL draft. Be it patience, willing to change your game or the need to try over with another organization, players do whatever it takes to get that opportunity.
“The mental side of the game for a lot of these draft choices or these on-the-cusp, on-the-edge players is the hardest part,” Rockford coach Ted Dent said. “The physical aspect, keeping yourself in shape and being a good hockey player isn’t the battle. It’s usually the mental side of things, the expectations, the pressure they put on themselves, maybe their families, their agents or whatever comes with it. It’s a side that gets overlooked a little bit.”
“I did whatever it would take.”
Patrick Sharp spent a few years at the University of Vermont but for him, his career choice was clear: he was going to be a pro hockey player no matter what. Coming up through the Philadelphia Flyers’ system (Sharp was their 95th overall pick in the 2001 draft), finding an opportunity was tough the early 2000s. The Flyers had their goal scorers – John LeClair, Michal Handzus, Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick were among them. So to get a chance Sharp changed his game and came up as a fourth-line checker.
“I looked at the team I had in Philly – couple of Hall of Famers, a lot of all-stars. I realized that, although I was an AHL all-star and I was putting up points, I probably wasn’t going to do with the Flyers. I had to do what I could to make that team,” Sharp said. “Be more physical, fighting, I did whatever it would take.
“Every player has been a star at some level of their career. That’s why they’re in the situation they’re in,” Sharp said. “Each player has a different path, a different role. It’s important for that player to have communication and find out what they want from him. What’s going to help him get to that next level and apply it? It’s easy at a young age to think, ‘I’ve got a good game.’ It’s not always the case. It’s a 200-foot game, special teams. Communication’s the key.”
Jack Skille had a similar situation. Skille was highly touted coming out of the U.S. National Development Program and the Blackhawks selected him seventh overall in the 2005 draft. He left the University of Wisconsin-Madison early and would later sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks. For years, Skille said people tried to tell him he’d need a different game to stay in the NHL, but it took him time to realize that. Now a regular starter for the Vancouver Canucks in more of a checking role, Skille said he’s happy and having fun with the game.
“I think that was the biggest adjustment coming here and in the role I play: [realizing] less is more. It took me a long time, as a young kid, to realize that. It took a lot of mistakes over my career and a lot of growing pains to finally get to the point where I was like, what everyone’s telling me, less is more and they’re right. I finally bought into it and it’s been working,” Skille said. “It’s an adjustment because you’re used to sitting there, being one of the go-to guys and out there every single shift. But there’s something to be said for guys who don’t get frequent shifts out there and keep playing the same way with a lot of energy.”
The sounding board
Dent’s office is in a perfect spot at BMO Harris Center, located between the IceHogs’ locker room and the players’ lounge. From his office, Dent can gauge what mood his players are in, and which ones are down and could use a talk.
This is as much part of a minor-league coach’s job as the coaching itself. The Blackhawks’ organization has a mental skills coach who is sometimes in Rockford but, for the day-to-day, Dent is that guy.
“You try to form that bond and relationship with them. For them to get their feelings off their chest is a big thing because they hold so many feelings in, in a group setting,” Dent said. “You want to be that strong, tough guy like all hockey players. But inside a lot of them have a lot of emotion that needs to get out. You try to be that sounding board for them and let them get some things out one-on-one.”
Crawford had his ears to bend when he was in Rockford – at that time Bill Peters was head coach and Dent was assistant. Crawford said those talks helped but ultimately, it came down to him.
“They’re not going to be there when you go home. They’re not going to make choices for you. You really have to learn that on your own,” Crawford said. “Maybe [you get pep talks] a little bit from your teammates but a lot of those guys, too, were guys I was growing up with and going through all that stuff with. It’s just one of those things where you get a feel for how you’re supposed to think and to battle through things and try to stay positive.”
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“I expected to be in the NHL this year…”
Michael Latta was happy when he was traded to the IceHogs in January. He’s getting more minutes, more opportunity than he was in his short stay with the Ontario Reign, the Los Angeles Kings’ minor-league team. But there’s no doubt Latta, who spent a few seasons with the Washington Capitals, wants another chance at the NHL.
“I expected to be in the NHL this year with LA. I really did. And it didn’t work out,” said Latta, who was selected 72nd overall by the Nashville Predators in 2009. “But I believe I can play in the NHL; I can be a factor in the NHL. So I’m really hoping I can get a chance up there just to show [the Blackhawks] what I can do. They don’t know me very well so it’d be nice to go up there and get a shot. Just get a chance to show them and see what they think.”
At the same time, Latta wants to play as much as possible. For bubble guys like him, that doesn’t always happen in the NHL. In Rockford he’s playing a lot of minutes, getting a lot of opportunities, and he’s taking advantage of it.
“I’d played eight minutes a night, which is fine. You’re living the dream, playing in the NHL. But I was excited to come down and get my scoring touch back, get some ice time, some power play time,” Latta said. “To come here and get it and start playing, it’s been special. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m just really enjoying it again. Hockey’s fun again.”
It’s not easy to make the NHL but the opportunity is worth it for many. For those trying to latch on, or latch on again, the work continues. For those who made it, there’s the appreciation for what it took to get here.
“Every experience teaches you something, even if it’s negative. The negative ones seem to stick with people more and that’s where you get to learn things,” Crawford said. “It’s tough, especially when there are stretches when you don’t get a sniff at coming up and it seems like you’re going to be there for the rest of your career. Then there are other times you’re really confident and you feel you should be in the NHL. That’s all about learning, learning to stay level headed and not get too down or too high. Just work hard, have fun.”