Blackhawks

Patience and perseverance: trying to make, and stay in, the NHL

Patience and perseverance: trying to make, and stay in, the NHL

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.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

“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.”

Fan captures exhilarating view of Alex DeBrincat's game-winning goal against Nashville

debrincat-usat-goal-celebration-220.jpg
USA TODAY

Fan captures exhilarating view of Alex DeBrincat's game-winning goal against Nashville

Ever sit rinkside for an NHL game? Ever sit behind a goal? Ever get to see a game-winning goal with the goal-scorer rushing right toward you on a breakaway?

A fan captured such a moment on video and put it on Reddit. User nhammer11 had exhilarating footage of Alex DeBrincat’s breakaway game-winning overtime goal against Nashville on Friday.

I know it's a couple of days late but we had some good seats the other night and the gf got an amazing video of Cat's ot goal. from r/hawks

The Blackhawks have lost twice since DeBrincat beat Pekka Rinne on this play, but it is a fun clip to watch.

Stan Bowman lays out big picture plan for Blackhawks

Stan Bowman lays out big picture plan for Blackhawks

ST. LOUIS — The NHL trade deadline has passed, and the Blackhawks sold off two key pieces from their roster who were on expiring contracts to recoup some draft picks and prospects to their pipeline. They had no choice to if neither player was going to be part of their long-term plans.

The return was underwhelming in large part because of how the market played out, but that isn't the real problem. It's the fact the Blackhawks are in a position where they subtracted from the roster because they're at risk of missing out on the playoffs for a third straight season.

GM Stan Bowman met with the media in St. Louis before Tuesday's game and was asked to provide an outline of the big picture plan going forward.

"The biggest thing in today's game is having young players play an important role," Bowman said. "The last couple years we've picked in the top 10. We hadn't picked there since we picked Patrick [Kane in 2007]. So I think that's where you get some of those high-end players. The challenge is to try to get as many as those as you can and then build from that way out. Luckily, we still have some other established players that are difference-makers.

"But to answer your question simply, the way you become a really dominant team is you have some high-impact players and you need to have as many of them as you can assemble, but they're not easy to come by. Certainly hard to trade for. I guess it happens rarely when they become available. You typically have to draft them or develop them. Maybe trade for them or sign them as free agents. When you're signing a free agent, unless it's a European guy, they tend to be older and they might have some good years left, but their best years are probably behind them. There's no shortcut to it other than drafting and developing those players, so then the question is how do you acquire those? And that's what we've been trying to do.

"We've been trying to acquire either young prospects or draft choices that we can use to hopefully find that next group. And then there's a little bit of a lag where you have to allow them to develop. Some of them, obviously Kirby [Dach] is the exception to be able to come right in. Usually it takes a little bit of time. Adam [Boqvist] it took one year, now he's already in the NHL. For defensemen, that's a pretty quick ascent to the top. But we have to have a little bit of patience for those players to have time to develop. But you need to have those high-value assets, and we're trying to get as many as those as we can."

To summarize it best: the Blackhawks are in a "lag" period.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are still at the top of their games at age 31, Duncan Keith has a lot of hockey left in him and Corey Crawford is showing no immediate signs of slowing down. Alex DeBrincat is part of that second wave, and you figure Dylan Strome is too. Dominik Kubalik is playing his way into that conversation as well.

And then there's Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach, both of whom broke into the NHL this season as teenagers and have the highest ceilings of them all to turn into elite difference-makers because of where they were drafted. The challenge is balancing patience in their development while helping them get to their prime level as quickly as possible so it coincides with whatever high-level years of hockey Kane, Toews and the other core veterans have. 

There will surely be conversations within the organization over the offseason about the direction of the Blackhawks. Kane hopes the players can provide input to some degree.

"I think it's good to ask the players what they think, to be honest with you," Kane said. "We're the ones who are playing every night. We see what's going on in the locker room. We see who's tough to play against in the league, what teams are tough to play against. That would be a good road to go."

Bowman said he doesn't believe it's necessarily fair to bring the players into the decision-making process but admitted the leadership group has earned the respect to have their voices heard based on what they've accomplished in Chicago.

"If we knew exactly what the future held then you could have that conversation, but it's just a lot of guess work on everybody's part as far as nobody knows what our team's going to be year to year," Bowman said. "You have a plan on what you're doing, but then life happens, and things change. You have to have the willingness to adapt to what's in front of you, so I think that's why their job is to play hockey and they're very good at that and we let them do that.

"The other stuff, you might have conversations in the offseason more-so; day to day, talking to players about the management of the team, that's not the way sports work."

The Blackhawks are taking a long-term approach to their retooling process and it's difficult to predict when everything is going to line back up to not just be battling for a playoff berth but become perennial Stanley Cup contenders again. Are the Blackhawks on board with that?

"I mean, that’s the goal," Toews said. "Anything less than that is disappointing and frustrating."

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