By Todd Reicher
This week’s Tales From the Trough is deviating from the normal game recap in favor of honoring some previous IceHogs players who were in attendance at the MetroCentre last weekend.
Saturday, Feb. 27, marked Chicago Blackhawks Night at the Rockford MetroCentre. Attending this special event were ex-IceHogs and current Chicago Blackhawks players Niklas Hjalmarsson, Antti Niemi, Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg and Colin Fraser. Also in attendance were Blackhawks Assistant Coach Mike Haviland, who was the ’Hogs’ first coach in the team’s inaugural American Hockey League (AHL) season, team mascot Tommy Hawk, the Ice Crew and team President John McDonough.
Doors opened at 5:45 p.m. to the 7 p.m. game as Brouwer, Hjalmarsson, Haviland, Niemi, Fraser and Versteeg were available prior to the start of the game and during the first and second intermissions to sign autographs for guests in attendance.
Visitors started the queue in the new ticketing area, which wrapped its way through the west side of the area and all the way back to the main concourse. An estimated guess would have the number of patrons waiting for their autographs to be in the vicinity of 1,750.
As the clock hit 6:04 p.m., camera flashes illuminated the ticketing area, and voices turned from chatter to screams as the Blackhawks members entered through a side door and acknowledged the crowd. You can tell the young ’Hawks were happy to see the tremendous response to their arrival.
“I’ve always thought it was fun to play here, and it’s fun to say hi to all the fans,” Hjalmarsson said.
Once 6:55 p.m. hit, the players made a brief exit to prepare for the ceremonial puck drop. Simultaneously, the lights dimmed and the video board over center ice showed highlights from the previous members in the days when they donned the ’Hogs’ sweaters.
Two shiny red convertibles rolled onto the ice as the frantic crowd roared with applause as the alumni were introduced.
Haviland dropped the ceremonial puck, and the alum shook hands with ’Hogs’ captain Jake Dowell and Rivermen assistant captain and ex-’Hog Danny Richmond.
Ten minutes later, the honored guests were ushered upstairs to the newly-constructed suites, where members of the press were awaiting interviews. The most frequently-asked question was how it felt to be back. Hjalmarsson answered first: “It’s nice to come back and see how it is here. They’ve rebuilt the arena a little since I’ve been here.”
Other players had similar words regarding their return: “I have lots of good (and bad) memories and good friends here. It’s nice to come back,” Niemi said.
Moments later, a disrupting screech of a siren was heard in the background signifying a fight in the game. But the mood stayed relaxed with the ’Hawks upstairs.
“I’ve been spending time on my couch and getting away from the game for a bit and getting my mind off of things,” Brouwer calmly explained, unshaken by the deafening siren. You could tell he was quite relaxed, and nothing was bothering his tranquil mood. It appeared the two-week break from hockey because of the Olympics was treating the players well.
Hjalmarsson was equally peaceful: “I went back home to Sweden for a bit. I was bruised up a bit and needed some time off. It’s always nice to go back home and spend time with your family and friends.”
One bit of concern for many fans and players was the extended time off and how it would affect everyone. Versteeg confidently acknowledged that question by stating, “Honestly, I think every team is going to have a bit of rust, and that just comes with having that much time off.”
He was also secure about the status of his team upon return, declaring, “I think we’re a close-knit team, a comfortable and confident team.”
Last year, Versteeg was a runner-up for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, which is awarded to the best Rookie of the Year. When asked how tough it was to follow up on a successful first year, Versteeg answered: “It’s a bit tougher now. Guys know your weaknesses at times, and it’s a learning experience, and it comes with having a good first year.”
Before the interviews were over, conversation turned back to the ’Hogs and their current season. “The guys have a good year ahead of them still,” mentioned Brouwer.
Brouwer was correct as the ’Hogs do have a good year ahead of them still. This was verified to be true through most of this week as the team won two of their three games, and remains in second place in the tight West Division. Thursday, Feb. 25, the ’Hogs defeated the Milwaukee Admirals 4-1. Saturday, Feb. 27, the team bested the Peoria Rivermen 2-1 in a shootout, and then fell to first-place Chicago 4-2 Sunday, Feb. 28.
Rockford’s next home game is Wednesday, March 3, when the ’Hogs battle the Lake Erie Monsters. Rockford then goes on a five-game road trip that takes them through Texas, then across the border to Manitoba, returning back to the MetroCentre Sunday, March 14, to take on the Houston Aeros.
From the Mar. 3-9, 2010 issue