Driving home from Nashville, TN, following the NHL Entry Draft last June, the CHGO Blackhawks crew was on a buzz. Not only did the Chicago Blackhawks draft prized prospect Connor Bedard first overall, but they also added a slew of talented youngsters, including Oliver Moore, Adam Gajan, Martin Mišiak, and Nick Lardis.
Typically, the newest draft picks would join the rest of the team’s prospect pool for a week of on-ice workouts at the annual development camp. However, the Blackhawks decided to have all their activities off the ice this year. We were bummed, to say the least, that we would have to wait until September to see Bedard on the ice with some of the other prized prospects like Kevin Korchinski, Drew Commesso, and Nolan Allan.
Instead of skating and working on puck-handling and shooting, the team pushed themselves physically in the gym. They also got to know each other better with cooking classes, boxing sessions, and even an improv night. In hindsight, the off-ice development camp was the right call, as this group of prospects is close and ready to play for each other.
“When you look around the locker room and, on the ice, you notice how close the guys are,” Commesso, the Blackhawks’ top goaltending prospect, said after Wednesday’s practice. “Everyone can speak to that. We all got close at that camp. Championship teams that I’ve been on, like the one at Boston University where we had so much success, the main difference is how close the guys are in the locker room. It’s how much they care for each other and buy-in for each other. It’s something I know they are preaching here. The prospect pool is so tight – tighter than I could ever imagine, to be honest. That week was huge in building the off-ice piece to this, and they did a terrific job.”
Many of the Blackhawks’ top prospects, minus those in college and playing professionally in Europe, are in town preparing for the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase this weekend in St. Paul, MN. The first two practices have been intense, with a group of guys who are not only competing against each other but also trying to make each other better.
“There was a competitive spirit on the ice,” Rockford IceHogs head coach Anders Sorensen said after day one. “You can tell that they know each other more on a personal level now than in years past.”
Sorensen was very high on Ryder Rolson, who joined the Blackhawks after a successful college career at the University of Notre Dame. His high motor and quickness have caught the attention of the coaching staff. However, the second-generation forward is grounded and excited to be a part of this group.
“That was a big week for us,” he said of July’s development camp. “A lot of us are really close because of it. You’re not going out there with guys you’re not used to; you’re out there with guys you call brothers and your best friends. When that’s the case, you want to do more for those guys. I’ve played for teams in the past where we’ve prided ourselves on culture, and I think coming in here as one of the older guys, I can help bring guys together. Those are the things that create a winning culture, as well.
Allan and Korchinski are back in Chicago after a run to the Memorial Cup with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Both reflected on the development camp and believe it will help everyone on the ice.
“We met everyone, the freshly drafted guys, at development camp and got to see the guys we hadn’t seen in a couple of years,” Allan said. “With a young group like this, that week off the ice was huge. It will translate into our game, and we’ll really be able to gel together.”
Korchinski is an interesting case because of the CHL agreement with the NHL. He is not eligible for the AHL because he is under 20, so it is either the Blackhawks or back to the Thunderbirds this season. While his fate for the upcoming season is in his hands, he is excited about how this group is coming together.
“This weekend is going to help even more by playing for each other,” the young blueliner said. “That kind of comradery is really going to help us going forward.”
Bedard missed the first day of practice because he was doing the NHL media tour in Las Vegas. All eyes were on him when he took to the ice on Thursday morning. It was easy to tell that the 18-year-old was just happy to be back playing hockey.
“Today was great,” he said. “It feels like these guys belong here. Everyone feels comfortable going into the room and talking. We are all competing and trying to make everyone better. Everyone gets along, and it’s a fun environment.”
We have heard general manager Kyle Davidson and head coach Luke Richardson speak a lot about culture. To many, culture is just a buzzword. However, when you walk through the locker room of this group of prospects, you see the culture in action. This is precisely what the team brass has envisioned, and it will only get better as these young players start to taste success. This NHL season won’t be about wins and losses for the Blackhawks but rather about development and continuing to lay down the foundation for a championship franchise.