By Todd Reicher
Todd Reicher (TR): Hey, Mike, thanks for sitting down with me today. So, what’s new and exciting coming this year for the Rockford IceHogs?
Mike Peck (MP): There isn’t anything too drastic. Just trying to tighten up our presentation, freshen up our giveaways, added some new giveaways, a few new theme nights and a few new promotions that we are mixing in. Just trying to keep things fresh, and that is what we do from year to year anyway, but last year we had new lights, new seats, new concession stands, and that was pretty drastic, so nothing as big as that.
TR: Any major changes league-wise this year? I believe I read there are some changes to overtime with a four-on-four for the first half of the period, then three-on-three for the last half?
MP: Yeah, overtime changes, which I think will be pretty cool. The AHL gets used as a testing ground for these things, like the hybrid icing we saw last year, and that was put into the NHL. It will be pretty cool to see how it works out, with four-on-four and then three-on-three (halfway through the overtime period), so hopefully we will see more games settled in overtime. The NHL has also removed the spin-o-rama from the shootout as well.
TR: Going back to promotions, anything new that you haven’t done yet?
MP: Well, we are doing Garden Gnomes, which we have always wanted to do for years … we are doing cell phone covers, which should go over well with the fans. Also, we did a “Pucks and Paws” night last year, but this year we are making it much bigger and better, and we are also doing a golf night, which will probably be in April.
We’ve also expanded on “Brovember,” making that bigger and better, and same with the Rockford Hockey Club. We are really trying to expand with them as well, and we will have a special jersey for them as well.
TR: Now, you’re probably going to keep “Pink in the Rink” and the Jersey Auction night, right?
MP: Yep, we are going to keep those going.
TR: When do you guys usually come to a decision as to what themes the jersey will be?
MP: Well, Brovember is done, we are working on the Pink in the Rink one now, and then the Rockford Hockey Club jersey, which is their jersey, but we have to get it finished by our jersey guys. The theme for our Jersey Auction this year is going to be Autism Awareness, and that theme usually doesn’t get figured out until November, but over the summer, we really had an idea of what we wanted to do. The jersey isn’t done yet, but we will have that squared out later this year.
TR: How do you decide what the jersey theme will be?
MP: This year and last year are the first times we have themed our jersey around an actual charity. You know, we have had Rick Nielsen Hammy, Military Theme, things like that in the past, but this and last year we have themed around a charity.
TR: Now, we had a minor coaching change in the off-season, correct?
MP: Yes, Matt Prefontaine left us for a job in Winnipeg and Mark Oseicki had a title change.
TR: With training camp right around the bend, what are the things that your staff and the arena are doing to wrap up the final pieces?
MP: It’s always making sure the ice is ready and everything is set from there. It’s nice that we have a home preseason game this year so we can give everything an official run through. As far as from a game-ops standpoint, it’s a good run through. It’s a bare-bones production where we don’t do everything, but we do enough to make it a good experience. The preseason game is next Thursday (Oct. 2), so we have a week to get things ready to go. From an operations standpoint, the building is ready to go. With the renovations last year, we didn’t have much to work with as far as testing, so that will help this year.
From our standpoint, we have to make sure our rosters and bios are ready, and all of our material so we can hand things out to the media, everything is up to date on the website, season ticket books are getting ready for the season ticket holders, and getting tickets out the door.
TR: As far as the schedule, it seems like it’s pretty favorable for a player standpoint. What are your thoughts?
MP: Our longest road trip is right off the hop, with four or five games in eight days. It’s a very balanced schedule, which is good from a player standpoint, but not so much from a business standpoint. We’re spread out with a stretch of six of eight Saturdays in November to December where we don’t play, and that is hard on business, but we are pretty evenly distributed. We only have three sets of three games in three nights, which is the lowest we’ve had in team history. If we had to nitpick, I would say we’d like to have more Saturday games in there, but I feel we can make up for it in other areas.
TR: Let’s get to the meat of the interview: who is going to be here and who isn’t? It’s kind of up in the air right now with the Blackhawks salary cap situation, so you don’t know if someone is going to get traded.
MP: I know at least starting with forwards, starting with Mark McNeill, Philip Danault, Garrett Ross — those guys are not going to be rushed, so we can probably bank on them not making the team in Chicago. And I think they know that, but they know it’s for their development and growth. You can also throw in guys like Cody Bass, P.C. Labrie, Joakim Nordstrom, Dennis Rassmussen and even Teuvo Teravainen, but having those guys come here and get more games is only going to help them. Even though they are getting anxious to be up there, they are young. Nordstrom will be 23 at the start of next season, Teravainen will be 21, and that’s still a pretty good age to be starting your NHL career. You know, you can have a 15-year NHL career and be 38 by the time they retire. And next year is going to be a big year with the salary cap crunch. There are two guys that are going to be making a total of $8 million a year more, so someone is probably going to get traded.
If you look at some of the prospects, we’ve got some great guys that I am itching to watch this year. We have Ryan Hartman and Stephen Johns, who I am really looking forward to watching. These guys are prospects who are going to be borderline impact players this year, and you sprinkle in some second- and third-year guys, and we have the making of a pretty good team. On paper, it looks like a playoff team.
TR: You do have a few guys that can give you some leadership experience, and it looks like we have some potential players that can give the younger guys a boost. If you believe what you read and hear, it appears Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta are the two goaltenders in Chicago and that Michael Leighton will be here in Rockford.
MP: Well, that’s what the depth chart would say if you were going by that. In all regards, that may be right because Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth have already been sent down from Chicago, leaving Scott Darling and Leighton in Chicago. If that is the case, then you most likely would see Leighton as the No. 1 and Darling as the No. 2 here. The bottom line is these guys need to play, so Simpson and Carruth, who are only 22, they need to play whether it is Indiana (in the ECHL) or Rockford.
TR: Going back to leadership, if Leighton is here, he is a guy with some good NHL experience and could certainly help in that regard, despite being a goaltender. His expertise will certainly help in the locker room, but who on the ice would you expect to take a leadership role with the team?
MP: I’ve heard nothing but good things about Bass. He’s a depth guy, so he probably won’t play for Chicago, but he could be a big name to watch for leadership. Labrie, if he ends up here, will be leaned on. After that, it could be Dahlbeck who briefly wore a letter last year, and same with Adam Clendening, who has some years.
After that, I look at a guy like Danault, who certainly takes on a leadership role. It’s certainly not out of the question. Drew LeBlanc is another hard worker, a lead-by-example kind of guy, who does things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
TR: With that said, who are some of the guys to keep an eye on this year?
MP: I would say LeBlanc for sure. He has said whether it was his first year of high school, first year of college, whatever, he struggled, and the second year was when it really clicked for him, so I am going to hold him to that this year and mark him as a guy to watch. And I don’t mean that he is going to put up 80 points, but I think he will have a breakout year. It wasn’t for a lack of working hard or caring, he just had a tough season adapting.
Another guy I really like is the game of Hartman. I hate to pin a high expectation of a first-year guy, but we saw him in nine games last year at the end of the season, so we know a bit of what he can do. Those first few games he was transitioning, but after that, he really impressed. There will be ups and downs, everyone goes through that, but that’s how they grow, and hopefully he can follow that same pattern.
TR: So, what about on the defensive side? I know you mentioned earlier about Johns — what about him?
MP: Yeah, that guy is certainly a rising star, and I know just a little sample was all we had last year, but his size, how he can skate, his physical play … I mean, he’s a guy I can’t see sticking around here more than two years — he is that good. Again, just a small sample size, but boy, I think he has the goods.
Another name is Viktor Svedberg, an under-the-radar guy. You know, last year when he was in our lineup, we had a .640 winning percentage, so that says something.
With that, I think our defense should be really solid and deep. Just like what we said with the goalies, these guys need to play, so some of them may be AHL players, but will play in the ECHL because they need to play, not because they are not good. We just don’t want a guy that needs playing time to be a seventh defenseman.
TR: Anything else you would like to add?
MP: Well, I don’t like making predictions about standings, as we have noted in past interviews, but I feel that on paper, this team is a playoff team. I would guess that we would break the playoff drought this year.
TR: Thanks so much for your time, Mike, and I look forward to chatting with you again halfway through the season to recap our first half!
MP: My pleasure, talk to you then.
From the Oct. 1-7, 2014, issue