03/01/2012 4:34 PM - At 6-foot 3-inches and 225 pounds, Brandon Bollig is a big guy. Add skates and several layers of hockey pads and he towers over many of his competitors. IceHogs fans know the winger as a fighter; a player who is willing to drop the gloves against any challenger, using his size and aggressiveness to defend his teammates.
Bollig’s penalty minutes tell the story. The St. Charles, MO native has led the IceHogs in penalty minutes for the majority of the season and has also ranked in the top five among all American Hockey League players. In all, Bollig is averaging more than three PIMs per game. Not every hockey player can take on the role as an enforcer, but Bollig has embraced it.
“I’ve always been willing to do it,” Bollig said. “I think I would rather be the one out there dealing with the fighting and the mental stress that goes along with it rather than one of my teammates.”
But the 25-year-old doesn’t want his entire career to only be defined by his willingness to rough it up. Bollig has worked hard to develop his playing skills, and now, in his second full professional season, the winger is starting to see that hard work pay off. He has already surpassed his point total from his rookie season when he notched four goals in 55 contests.
And it isn’t just the winger’s play on the ice that makes him a familiar face in Rockford. Bollig has been active in the community all season, making appearances at schools, hospitals and youth hockey practices. He also spearheaded a reading program at a local elementary school, using his energy and enthusiasm to make a positive impact in the Rockford community.
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DEVELOPING A ROLE
It would be easy to assume that hockey’s biggest fighters start getting into scraps as soon as they are able to tie their skates. That’s not the case for Bollig, who didn’t start developing his role as an enforcer until his senior year of high school in his hometown of St. Charles, MO.
“I played Junior B back home and I think I just kind of started doing it. It was kind of fun to me and I actually did really well,” Bollig said. “I think I was just kind of naturally aggressive.”
For Bollig, it was a combination of offensive production and his willingness to take on the enforcer role that propelled him to the top junior league in the country. After his senior year, Bollig was drafted by the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. In three seasons with Lincoln, the winger racked up 593 penalty minutes to go along with 73 points (37g-36a).
One reason Bollig fit the enforcer role with the Stars was his age, and subsequently, his maturity. Many players in the USHL leave home at age 14 or 15 to join their respective teams, and they must learn how to balance school and sports while living with host families. But Bollig finished high school before leaving to play hockey, giving him a different perspective.
“I was a little more grown up. I kind of had to be with the role that I played there,” Bollig said. “Even as a rookie, I think I was one of the older guys that guys kind of looked up to, so it was a good fit for me.”
When presented with the opportunity to play major junior in Canada after his first year with Lincoln, Bollig decided to continue in the USHL so he could play college hockey. The NCAA considers the major junior leagues in Canada—the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League—to be professional, so players lose their NCAA eligibility if they decide to go that route.
After three years with Lincoln, Bollig found himself with some scholarship offers and a decision to make. He weighed his options, but after a trip to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, Bollig knew where he wanted to go next.
“I visited St. Lawrence and just loved it, loved the coaching staff and all the guys and everything it was about. So when it came down to it and they made me the offer for the scholarship, it was tough to pass up. I’m glad I made that choice,” Bollig said.
The move gave Bollig an opportunity to advance and play Division I collegiate hockey. It also gave scouts from the National Hockey League an opportunity to get a closer look at the feisty forward, and one team in particular—the Chicago Blackhawks—liked what they saw.
BECOMING A BLACKHAWK
On Feb. 28, Bollig earned his first recall to the NHL, and then on Feb. 29, he suited up for his first game as a Chicago Blackhawk against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the United Center.
Bollig had noted before the game that he would be willing to get in a scrap if the opportunity presented itself. In the second period, Bollig dropped the gloves with Toronto defenseman Luke Schenn to garner his first NHL fight.
The winger’s path to the NHL started during his freshman year at St. Lawrence. After not being drafted while in juniors, Bollig recorded 13 points (6g-7a) and 51 penalty minutes through 36 games in his first college season. The Blackhawks saw him play a few times and invited Bollig to their rookie camp that summer.
It wasn’t the first go-around for Bollig, who garnered an invitation to the St. Louis Blues rookie camp the summer before his freshman year at St. Lawrence. But it was at the Blackhawks camp where Bollig met future IceHogs teammate Brandon Pirri.
“After my freshman year, that was the same year that [Pirri] was drafted, and so we both went to the rookie camp together,” Bollig said. “We didn’t know each other too well, but we kind of got to know each other [there].”
Pirri went on to play at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, which is in the ECAC Hockey conference with St. Lawrence. Though they didn’t face each other often, Bollig remembers St. Lawrence having the advantage over RPI.
“I think we played them two or three times that year. I think we got the better of them,” Bollig noted.
Bollig continued to get better, too. Aside from the Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins and St. Louis
Blues also showed an interest in the forward, who produced 7g-18a-25pts in 42 games during his sophomore year, good for fourth on the team. He also led St. Lawrence with 83 PIMs.
For Bollig, knowing that he was being scouted by some of the most notable teams in the NHL was surreal.
“It’s a great feeling, especially when you tell your parents that NHL teams are calling and asking about you,” Bollig said. “It’s pretty cool to tell them after all the hard work they’ve put into it, as long as I have.”
After his second season with St. Lawrence ended, the Blackhawks signed Bollig to a two-year entry level contract, and though the decision to leave the college game wasn’t an easy one, Bollig was ready to move on to the professional level.
“It was a big decision to leave after my sophomore year,” he said, “But I’m glad I did make that decision. I think I’m more of a pro player rather than a college player.”
Bollig joined the IceHogs at the end of the AHL season, making his professional debut on April 6 in a 3-1 Rockford win at Houston. He added his first professional goal and assist a few nights later in San Antonio. Getting a small taste of the professional lifestyle helped Bollig adjust as he prepared for his rookie season.
“It was great for me to come at the end of my college season the year before and spend a couple weeks here. I got to go on a nice long road trip to Texas and kind of see what the road trips were about,” Bollig said.
That summer, the forward went to his second Blackhawks rookie camp, but that paled in comparison to skating on the biggest stage in Chicago—the United Center.
“You go to the main try-out camp in Chicago and you get to see all those superstars and skate along with them,” he said. “That’s pretty crazy, especially when you’re out there and you’re sharing a locker room with guys like [Marian] Hossa or [Patrick] Kane.”
When Bollig came to Rockford for the IceHogs training camp, he was more comfortable than some of the other first-year skaters who hadn’t yet spent any time in the Forest City. But when it came to playing in his first full professional season, however, Bollig wasn’t much different than the rest of Rockford rookies.
“I really didn’t know what to expect to be honest,” Bollig noted.
The winger tallied four goals in 55 contests during his first season in the AHL and earned 115 penalty minutes. Bollig experienced the ups and downs that most first-year players go through, but he worked through it, and his dedication has paid off in the form of a bigger role on this season’s squad.
MORE THAN A FIGHTER
On the stat sheet, Bollig’s penalty minutes for the 2011-12 season stand out. He ranks in the top ten in the AHL and could break the 200 mark by the end of the regular season.
Head Coach Ted Dent knows the influence a gritty player like Bollig can have on a young team, especially when he is also well-liked in the locker room.
“I think he gives our team confidence. They really like Brandon the person as well,” Dent said. “They know he’s always going to have their back.”
But Dent sees more than just the fighter in Bollig, who spent last summer honing his on-ice skills.
“He’s provided our team with some good play,” said the IceHogs coach. “He’s on the penalty kill unit. At times he’s shuffled between different lines on our team when we’ve needed a spark. He’s really coming into his own as a player.”
Hard work has earned Bollig more ice time, which means that Dent and the rest of the IceHogs coaching staff trust the winger to make responsible plays whenever he is on the ice.
Bollig is more than willing to do the dirty work, whether it’s fighting for puck possession along the boards or blocking shots from some of the best offensive players in the league.
“It’s been great as of late, having my role increase and having my minutes increase and being more of a factor on the team rather than just dropping the gloves and fighting,” said Bollig.
Getting into scrums will probably always be part of the winger’s game. At one time, he could have had a long career solely by being the big, tough, gritty guy. For many years, enforcers didn’t need to be very skilled; they just had to be willing to drop the gloves and dish out hard hits against the opposing team’s top players.
But the sport has changed in recent years. Skaters are faster, stronger and more skilled than in seasons past, and Bollig realizes that simply being an enforcer isn’t the best path to success in today’s game.
“That role is kind of expendable here as of late,” he said. “I think it will always be there, but it’ll be less and less effective as far as the just the fighting part of it.”
Still, fighting has its place in the sport. During tense games, Dent sees a positive reaction from the IceHogs bench when Bollig steps up to defend his teammates.
“In situations where he’s jumping in there for a teammate, maybe where someone got roughed up earlier in the game or earlier in that shift, he’s trying to protect somebody and make a point. I think that really sparks our team. I think our guys really enjoy that part of his game,” said Dent.
Bollig also enjoys a good fight, not just as a player, but as a fan looking for entertainment.
“If I’m watching a hockey game I love to see a fight. I think everyone does,” Bollig said. “It’s really entertaining to see two guys go out there, who know what they’re doing, and drop the gloves in a bare knuckle fight.
“I love how into it the fans get, and how noticed you are once you do that. The fans start noticing you around town. It’s pretty awesome.”
His aggressiveness on the ice may have helped propel Bollig into the Rockford spotlight as a fan favorite, but it’s his work in the community that will leave a lasting impression.
All season, Bollig has been making appearances throughout the Rockford community. Whether it’s reading to elementary school students, delivering teddy bears to kids in the hospital, or stopping by a benefit to sign autographs and pose for photos, Bollig is happy to take time out of his day and give back to the people who support the IceHogs.
“I just enjoy the fan interaction,” Bollig said. “They’re the ones paying their hard-earned money to come see us. It’s the least we can do.”
Last season, through the non-profit organization Hockey Players 4 Kids (HP4K), former IceHogs forward Kyle Hagel set up a “Stick to Reading” program at Kishwaukee Elementary School. During the six-week program, students earned points for each book they read, and at the end, the top readers got to play floor hockey with the IceHogs.
This past summer, Bollig was invited to the HP4K conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he was made a member of the organization. Founded by professional hockey player Dustin Sproat, HP4K consists of more than 50 professional hockey players in the NHL, AHL, ECHL and more.
After coming back to the Forest City, Bollig decided to spearhead the “Stick to Reading” program for third, fourth and fifth graders at Hillman Elementary School in Rockford. The seven-week program kicked off on Jan. 4 with an assembly at Hillman, where Bollig was joined by IceHogs forward Ben Smith and former IceHogs defenseman Brian Connelly to encourage the students to start reading.
Bollig didn’t want to only show up at the beginning and end of the program, however, and took an active role in checking in at Hillman.
“It’s great. The kids love it,” Bollig noted. “We [stopped] in there every couple of weeks to see how they’re doing.”
On Feb. 22, the top readers at Hillman were rewarded with prizes, including the opportunity to play floor hockey with the IceHogs. In addition to Bollig, Simon Danis-Pepin, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, Ryan Stanton, Brandon Svendsen and Ben Youds were on hand to congratulate the students and engage in some friendly competition.
Last year, when test scores came back for the students at Kishwaukee, the fifth graders that won the competition improved their readings scores during ISAT testing by an average of 7.57%. Overall, 89.4% of fourth and fifth grade students showed improved scores in reading.
At Hillman, Bollig saw first-hand how much of an impact “Stick to Reading” can have.
“It’s pretty cool to see the kids that really do take part in the program and to see their eyes light up when you walk into the school, and see how pumped they get to see you, and to hear all of the books they’ve been reading,” he said. “It’s pretty great.”
Bollig has made a name for himself in Rockford. On the ice, he’s the fierce enforcer who will drop the glove to defend his teammates, the gritty forward who is willing to dish out big hits and block shots to prevent goals.
But Bollig’s work off the ice is winning over even more fans who see the positive impact he has in the community.
“It’s a great city here as far as fan support and all that. The pro life is one that I’d like to enjoy for quite some time.”