Hogs complete first season in the AHL
Rockford, Ill.- The ninth season of Rockford IceHogs hockey is now complete and it’s time assess the club’s first campaign in the American Hockey League. Rockford bowed out of the Calder Cup Playoffs on May 13 in the West Division Finals’ seventh game against the Chicago Wolves.
The theme of the 2007-08 season for the IceHogs was one of change. The IceHogs played in a new league, with new players, new coaches and a new affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Over the previous three hockey campaigns in the Forest City, the IceHogs established a higher standard of hockey. Head Coach Mike Haviland and his team had the tough task of winning over a fan base that had just watched its team win a Colonial Cup Championship in the now-defunct United Hockey League.
Haviland led the ’07-08 IceHogs to a 44-26-4-6 record and a second-place finish in the AHL’s most competitive division from top to bottom. The 44 wins marked the fourth straight season in which Rockford won at least 40 games.
Welcome to the AHL
There was a new team in town, but four weeks into the season, fans in Rockford might not have realized it. The IceHogs began the ’07-08 season with nine straight road games. After opening the season on Oct. 6 at Quad City against the Flames, the IceHogs didn’t play a home game at the Rockford MetroCentre until Nov. 3.
The nine-game road swing could have put Rockford behind the eight-ball in the long-term playoff picture to start the campaign, but the IceHogs skated away with a solid 5-3-1-0 record.
The AHL version of the IceHogs were welcomed to a sold out MetroCentre on Nov. 3 and Hogs fans saw first-hand what AHL hockey was all about.
While renovations inside the MetroCentre continued to take shape, the IceHogs plugged through the 80-game regular season slate. Fueled by a franchise record 16-game stretch without a regulation loss, the IceHogs grabbed their first share of first place in the West Division and sat on top the Division until a mid-season slump in early February.
On the ice, some of professional hockey’s top prospects graced the MetroCentre ice. In just one season, the IceHogs faced off against Sergei Kostitsyn (Montreal Canadians), Clarke MacArthur (Buffalo Sabers), Joel Perrault (Phoenix Coyotes), Rich Peverley (Nashville Predators), David Jones (Colorado Avalanche) and many other skaters who made an impact at the NHL level.
The Rockford Impact
Probably the biggest dose of reality that the AHL was in Rockford was the seemingly constant recalls of IceHogs skaters to the Blackhawks. Beginning on Oct. 26 when Dave Bolland was summoned to Chicago, the IceHogs had an AHL-high 19 different players recalled to the parent club.
Overall, 20 different players skated in the NHL and donned an IceHogs jersey in 2007-08. Seven different IceHogs players made their NHL debut (Jake Dowell, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Petri Kontiola, Adam Berti, Jack Skille, Kris Versteeg and Jordan Hendry).
Five different skaters also scored their first NHL goal (Dowell, Skille, Versteeg, Hendry, and Bolland).
With the proximity between Rockford and Chicago so close, IceHogs fans could watch a Kris Versteeg skating at the MetroCentre one night and at the United Center the next.
Players weren’t just filling gaps with the Blackhawks either. Dustin Byfuglien was recalled to Chicago on Nov. 3 and made such an impact that he never returned. Cam Barker got the call on Dec. 19 and remained with the Hawks for the rest of ’07-08.
Goalie Corey Crawford got his first real taste of NHL hockey during his third professional campaign and earned himself some ice time. Crawford picked up his first career NHL win by shutting out the defending Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks before turning in his best NHL game to date against this season’s Stanley Cup Finals participant Detroit Red Wings. In Detroit on March 11, Crawford turned away 44 Red Wings shots despite getting saddled with the loss in a 3-1 defeat.
Hendry might have been the biggest surprise in the Blackhawks organization in ’07-08. After getting his first career recall on Jan. 9, the undrafted defenseman would go on to play in 40 games with Chicago while becoming a mainstay on the blue line down the stretch.
The Chicago Wolves
One concern of IceHogs fans with the move to the AHL was the loss of rivalries made over the past eight seasons. Gone are the Fort Wayne Komets, Kalamazoo Wings and Muskegon Fury. Shortly after the AHL announced that Rockford was moving to the AHL, Quad City was holding a similar press conference about their future in the “A”.
So naturally, Rockford’s old rivals would carry over to the new league, right? Not so fast. The Hogs and now Quad City Flames didn’t exactly have the rivalry that the old IceHogs and Quad City Mallards had in the past.
Enter the Chicago Wolves. Before a lot of Rockford fans were turned onto to IceHogs hockey in 1999-2000, they would venture down I-90 to the Allstate Arena to Wolves games. Even after the Hogs inception, Hogs fans weren’t afraid of the casual jaunt to a Wolves game when the IceHogs were on the road.
Now in the same league, it took about 4:33 of hockey time to realize there might be something brewing between the two clubs when Evan Brophey and Andre Deveaux engaged in fisticuffs in the first period in the first ever meeting between the two clubs. Chicago would go on to win the first meeting 5-4 with a (guess what?) power-play goal, from (guess who?) Jason Krog in overtime.
Some of the most memorable games during Rockford’s first season in the AHL came against the Wolves. It was only fitting that the two clubs met in the West Division Finals and even more fitting that the series went the maximum seven games.
Overall, the I-90 rivals played 17 times during the 2007-08 season. Talk about laying the foundation for a future rivalry!
The home team would win 14 of the 17 meetings in the first edition of the rivalry and unfortunately for Rockford, Game 7 of the West Division Finals was on Wolves ice.
Rockford’s first season in the AHL was an overall success. After a second place regular season finish in the West Division, Rockford made a nice run in the postseason before falling in seven games to the Western Conference’s top team in Chicago.
The IceHogs also set an overall franchise attendance record in 2007-08 as over 153,000 fans came out to the MetroCentre to check out AHL IceHogs hockey.
The 19 recalls in one season more than likely won’t ever happen again, but it was special to watch so many Rockford skaters get a chance to play at the next level with the Blackhawks.
IceHogs fans also got to witness what a special AHL skater can do at this level with players like Martin St. Pierre and Troy Brouwer. St. Pierre was second in the AHL in scoring behind only league MVP Jason Krog. Brouwer led the circuit with 25 power-play goals while leading Rockford in overall goals.
Fans also got to witness players like Crawford, Hjalmarsson, Versteeg, Bryan Bickell and many others develop in Rockford and take another step in their careers in becoming full-time NHLers.
Despite seeing their defense getting decimated by injuries down the stretch, Rockford turned in a very good inaugural campaign in the AHL. The only thing separating the Hogs from a great campaign was one more win over the Wolves.
What’s Ahead For The Hogs?
It’s now time to turn the page to the 2008-09 season. Looking at the IceHogs roster the following are under contract with Chicago for the upcoming season: Hendry, Brophey, Versteeg, Skille, Bolland, Bickell, Berti, Kontiola, Mike Blunden, Brouwer, Adam Hobson, Hjalmarsson, Brennan Turner, J.C. Sawyer and Dowell.
Some of the key players who are considered restricted free agents or unrestricted free agents include Crawford, Wade Flaherty, Jerramie Domish, Ryan Stokes, Derek Nesbitt, Prestin Ryan, Tyson Marsh, Kenny MacAulay, Danny Richmond and St. Pierre.
A few factors will play a role in determining the IceHogs roster for year two in the AHL. All players who are under contract with the Blackhawks come September, will attend training camp with Chicago with a chance to make the parent club.
Depending on which players are re-signed for ’08-09, a good core of players should be expected back with the IceHogs come October. Filling out the rest of Rockford’s roster will be some draft picks from season’s past and some free agent signings, including some of the above mentioned restricted and unrestricted free agents.