Ted Dent is making written notes and taking mental notes, but he is in the market for one of those hand-held recorders. As the new head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, he is full of ideas about how to send game-ready players from the American Hockey League to Chicago, and if those thoughts are secure in one place, so much the better.
“I can wake up tomorrow morning and go over my whole list of what I want to do,” he says. “And I can go over it again and again. Details.”
If being organized is a skill set required by one of the most progressive organizations in sports, Dent appears to be an excellent fit for the Blackhawks. At age 41, Dent has been entrusted with nurturing talent for a parent club that has resurrected itself largely through homegrown infusions. Some franchises view player development as an expense; the Blackhawks under the aegis of Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough view it as an investment. Results are evident—a Stanley Cup in 2010—and expected.
“That was made very clear to me at my job interview,” says Dent. “We want to continue a winning atmosphere in Rockford, of course. But our primary responsibility is to teach and prepare these kids so they will be in the NHL within two or three years.”
Dent’s meeting with Blackhawks management occurred in mid-July during the team’s annual Blackhawks Convention at the Hilton Chicago, where 10,000 fans within a hotel reminded him that hockey is relevant again in the Windy City. As assistant coach for five years — one in Norfolk, four in Rockford — Dent witnessed a regime change and a Blackhawk renaissance that created opportunity. Quality franchises lose quality people, which is why the IceHogs lost head coach Bill Peters to the Detroit Red Wings, where he will be one of Mike Babcock’s sidekicks. Dent says he “went at it hard” when the opening arose, and the front office in Chicago, as it does with boys in skates, promoted those who are worthy from within. So, Rockford General Manager Mark Bernard will have Dent as his head man, assisted by Ben Simon and Steve Poapst.
“It’s Ted’s time,” says Al MacIsaac, the Blackhawks vice president/assistant to the president. “He’s tenacious, intelligent, with great hockey sense and people skills. A student of the game who has paid his dues and proven himself.”
Dent was a gritty center at St. Lawrence University, where he graduated with a degree in sport and leisure studies. He played minor league hockey at Wichita, Johnstown, Charlotte and Toledo. His coaching resume, which includes Trenton and Columbia, along with Miami, where he was an unpaid volunteer for the Matadors, who, as we all know, relocated for one East Coast Hockey League season from Louisville, where they were the River Frogs. For five years, from 1999 through 2004, he was video coordinator with the Washington Capitals. When you say Ted Dent has done it all, don’t forget roller hockey.
“Two summers with the Philadelphia Bulldogs,” he recalls. “One year, our coach was Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz. And the other year, Al MacIsaac. We made $180 a game, and it was a good way to stay in shape. One thing about roller hockey: When you go to check someone, you’re on wheels, and there’s no stopping.”
A minor league coach is no longer an incidental facet of the NHL landscape. More than ever, according to MacIsaac, drafting and producing players is vital. A hard salary cap, the only one in pro sports, virtually guarantees roster turnover. Also, the AHL has become a breeding ground for upwardly mobile youngsters instead of a landing place for thirtysomethings on the downside of their careers. In two years under Mike Haviland, who joined the Blackhawks as an assistant in 2008, and three under Peters, Dent has helped a more than two dozen players graduate to Chicago, several of whom earned Cup rings.
“(Wife) Katherine and I have three children,” says Dent. “And coaching on this level is like watching them grow. You hate to see them leave, but, hey, that’s what we’re here for. We teach them how to be professionals, on and off the ice. Most of them, whether they’re coming out of junior ranks or university, haven’t played a schedule that we play with as many games. You have to monitor that. You have to instill professional habits, like sticks on the ice, not on the hip. You have to make a hard pass, not a soft junior pass. You might have a kid here wondering why a guy he skated circles around in junior is in the NHL. It’s about competing and work ethic. And you have to, at times, massage players.”
The NHL is like college. It’s one thing to get there, another thing to stay there. It’s no secret that Corey Crawford was discouraged when he didn't secure one of two goalkeeping jobs with the Blackhawks at the start of the 2009-10 season. Crawford returned to the AHL for a fifth year. Dent felt Crawford’s hurt and applied those people skills to which MacIsaac referred. Look at Crawford now: he’s No. 1 in Chicago with a new three-year contract.
“The proximity of Rockford to Chicago is significant,” says Dent. “Our guys see that packed United Center down the road and want to get there, badly. Which is good. And once they get a taste of the NHL, they don’t want to leave it, which is also good. Just because you’re an average AHL player doesn’t mean you can’t make the NHL. The Blackhawks. That’s quite a carrot.”
Dent, a listener, thrives on communication. He’s talked with Joel Quenneville about the Blackhawks’ system of defensive zone coverage and neutral zone forechecking. If a player is summoned from Rockford to Chicago on moment’s notice, there is no time to consult a manual. To that end, Dent is also planning to synchronize practice schedules. If the Blackhawks hold drills at 11 a.m., then the IceHogs should toil accordingly.
“It might seem like a small thing,” says Dent. “But if we can get our guys on the same body clocks as the guys in Chicago, why not?”
It’s just another detail for the new head coach of the Rockford IceHogs who is operating as he did years ago in roller hockey. Ted Dent is building up some steam now, and there’s no stopping.