Friday evening, the CHGO Blackhawks crew hit the road to see Notre Dame host the Michigan Wolverines at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, IN. When we planned this trip months ago, we had visions of watching the Blackhawks’ prospects play in a big rivalry game. Frank Nazar, drafted thirteenth overall in last summer’s entry draft, was headed to his freshman season at Michigan, along with top draft prospect (and Chicago Steel alum) Adam Fantilli. Meanwhile, the Irish had two Blackhawks prospects of their own, forwards Landon Slaggert and Ryder Rolston. Well, Nazar is injured, as is Slaggart. Michigan declined our interview request for Fantilli, so it was Rolston or bust, and are we glad we made the trip.
Ryder Rolston Raves
The Irish lost Friday’s game 5-1, so we weren’t sure how enthusiastic Rolston would be about chatting with us after a loss, but he couldn’t have been more cordial, and he had some things to say about the Blackhawks commitment to development, especially when compared to his brief time with the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him in the fifth round back in 2020.
Greg Boysen: Was there anything, specifically, that you’ve been able to take away from your Blackhawks Development Camp experience to help you this season?
Ryder Rolston: The big thing is the relationship I built with the staff there, the front office, the development staff. Obviously a lot of great hockey minds. There are a lot of things I learned off the ice too, with the weight room staff. The staff knows the players, they know everything that you’re good at, everything you got to work on. Even though it’s a group camp specifically, I feel I made even big steps as a player during that camp, and just building relationships with those people was great.
Jay Zawaski: What’s your level of contact with Blackhawks development people during your Notre Dame season?
RR: (The Blackhawks) trust everything that I’m getting taught here. They kind of stay on the outside. They let me play within everything I’m being told here, but that being said, I do talk with (Player Development Coach) Erik Condra quite a bit, (Assistant GM, Player Development) Mark Eaton, just checking over film. I think it’s good to continually have a relationship with those guys, because in the future, those are going to be people I’m going to be talking to a lot.
JZ: How does the Blackhawks’ level of communication with you compare to other NHL college prospects you know?
RR: I was drafted by the Avalanche. My contact with them…it wasn’t even that long I was with the organization. I just feel like the Blackhawks do such a much better job of focusing on their prospects and understanding what they need to get better at developmentally. The prospect pool, that’s the face of the future. Erik Condra, Mark Eaton, (Player Development Coach) Kendall Coyne (-Schofield)…they’ve been so hands-on. I get a text from them all the time, and it’s not even hockey related. It’s just, “How are you?” “What’s going on?” “How is school going?” I didn’t get that with Colorado, so I think that in itself says a lot.
As a Blackhawks fan, those comments have to make you feel good about the direction of the rebuild. Rolston isn’t considered one of the Blackhawks’ top prospects. In fact, I would predict he will spend the vast majority of his career in the AHL, despite having the most hockey name of all time. I love that the organization is taking the steps necessary to keep tabs and keep in touch with all players in the organization, regardless of NHL pedigree or potential.
Monday afternoon, I was able to chat with Condra. He, like Rolston, played hockey for Notre Dame. I was interested in how he’d respond to Rolston’s praise.
JZ: Why is it so important to maintain this level of communication with all prospects?
EC: We want to give them every opportunity and anything they need to become better hockey players and better people. We have that close relationship so they can have someone to contact within the organization. We just want to make sure they have everything.
JZ: What is the genesis of this philosophy?
EC: When I was drafted by Ottawa (2006) there were no player development coaches at all. You get drafted, then you don’t hear from them until they’re ready to sign a contract. Our approach is a holistic approach. If you’re not doing well of the ice, you’re not going to be playing well. If school is going tough, it’ll bleed over. Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to more than worrying about your hockey on-ice. That’s one of the hardest things about growing up as an 18-22 year old. Figuring out life and what works. In hard times or good times, we’re here for you.
JZ: It was clear that despite never playing for Rockford or the Blackhawks, Rolston felt like he was part of the team. He identified as a Blackhawk, largely, I’d assume, because of the organization’s consistent contact. Do you think that’s one of the extra benefits of having relationships like these with players?
EC: For sure. I’m glad he said that. That’s what we want him to feel. He is part of our organization. Just because he’s not playing for the Blackhawks right now, doesn’t mean he isn’t going to be a big part of it. As you see throughout the league, you have to build from within your prospect pool to win championships. These guys that aren’t with us day in and day out, they’re still a big part of that.
It’s also a competition. If they see someone else working with us or getting nutrition help, etc, they think, “Well this guy is doing something, I might as well be doing something.” It’s two-fold in that aspect.
JZ: How do you think the Blackhawks compare to other NHL teams in terms of their outreach to their prospects?
EC: The Blackhawks give every opportunity and every resource you need to become a good human and a good player. There are some organizations that do a really good job, and there are others that don’t put as much effort into it. The ones that produce players from within and help their prospects grow are the ones that end up being pretty successful.
JZ: How has Kyle Davidson changed or advanced these systems since taking over as general manager?
EC: Kyle reaches out to prospects as well. He goes and sees prospects and he, along with Soupy (Hockey Operations Advisor Brian Campbell) and (Associate GM) Norm (Maciver) and the whole front office…they put a lot of effort into it because they know these are the guys who are going to be playing for the Blackhawks, and helping us rebuild this thing.
Does this any of this actually matter? It’s impossible to say. It’s not as if the Avalanche have had many problems developing their prospects, but players talk. Their experiences as prospects, minor leaguers, or NHL superstars get communicated to their peers. Remember, Marc-Andre Fleury wasn’t ready to come to Chicago until he spoke with friends and colleagues around the league. When it comes time for the Blackhawks to begin signing top-tier free agents again, every little bit of positive vibes helps.
On an individual level, a prospect like Rolston knowing he’s part of the organization…on their minds…in their sights…can do nothing but motivate. You could feel the pride he had in being affiliated with the Blackhawks.
If you look at the Blackhawks pool of players from NHL on down, for the first time in a long time, the prospects are the most important pieces to this team’s future. What’s happening in Rockford, and with their prospects spread all over the world, matters more than the outcome of any Blackhawks NHL game this season. The Blackhawks realize this, and are clearly doing their best to equip their talent with the tools needed to reach their full potential.
Plan ahead for Hossa Night
This Sunday, the Blackhawks are retiring Marian Hossa’s #81. If you’re planning on attending or watching the game, there are some things you should know. Puck drop is at 6 pm, but the ceremony will begin at 4:30 pm. Doors to the United Center will open at 3:30 pm. All pertinent information, including where to watch the ceremony on television, can be found on the Blackhawks website.
Special Friday show on CHGO Blackhawks
We’re not at liberty to say exactly what (or who) will make Friday’s CHGO Blackhawks show special, but you’re not going to miss this episode, we promise. We’ll be live at 11 am for this huge, huge show. DO. NOT. MISS. IT.
Ryder Rolston photo credit: UND.com