Rockford IceHogs | FEATURE: Corey Crawford - The Making of a Legend
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FEATURE: Corey Crawford - The Making of a Legend

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One of the biggest nights in IceHogs history centers around one of the biggest names to ever don the Rockford sweater. On Saturday, the IceHogs will retire Corey Crawford’s number 29 and induct him into the team’s Ring of Honor. His name in the hockey world is synonymous with the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cups that he won with the Chicago Blackhawks, but much of Corey Crawford’s story was forged in Rockford before he became an NHL champion.

The first five years of Crawford’s pro career were primarily spent in the American Hockey League with periodic tastes of the NHL with the Blackhawks in 2006, 2008, and 2010. After two minor league seasons with the Norfolk Admirals, he started backstopping Rockford when the team first jumped to the AHL in the 2007-08 season. From 2005 to 2010, “Crow” played in 263 professional regular season hockey games. 255 of them were in the minors.

Goaltenders often take longer to develop than young forwards or defenseman, but five seasons in the minors can be an eternity in the scope of some players’ careers. Crawford was patient with his journey, even though he had proven mastery of the AHL level. In 2007-08 with the Hogs, the Quebec native worked a 29-15-5 record, 2.83 goals-against average, and .907 save percentage. That same season, Crawford shined when given an NHL opportunity. In five appearances with Chicago, he allowed just eight goals and posted a .929 save percentage. Despite the success, it wasn’t Crawford’s time to make the jump quite yet.

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Antti Niemi, Cristobal Huet, Nikolai Khabibulin, Patrick Lalime, Adam Munro, Craig Anderson, Sebastien Caron, Brian Boucher. Those are all the other goaltenders that played for the Blackhawks from 2005 to 2010. All played multiple seasons in the NHL, and several produced lengthy NHL careers. For five seasons, Crawford had at least two of those names ahead of him on the organizational depth chart. Despite strong AHL numbers, his path ahead was blocked.

“I thought maybe I could’ve had my chance the summer Huet got signed,” Crawford admitted. “That’s a tough point for a prospect that’s kind of on the bubble between the AHL and NHL, and they signed another veteran guy. It’s tough mentally. I think it’s something hard to get over. You just have to keep pushing or stay in the moment and keep playing hockey. Keep enjoying hockey, working hard, and trying to get better.

“Coaches helped out, Wade Flaherty helped out, Bill Peters, Ted Dent those are guys that really helped me keep pushing to be my best and not to give up. Everyone has a different path, and it would’ve been easy to not play or whine and complain. I’m sure I did that maybe a little bit, as every human does. Overall, I think just keep playing the game hard and enjoy it. Eventually I got my shot.”

In 2010-11, Crawford’s patience paid off when he arrived on the NHL scene in earnest. Crow played 57 games with the Hawks that season and earned NHL All-Rookie Team honors behind a 33-18-6 record, 2.30 goals-against average, and .917 save percentage. His five years in the minor leagues had helped turn him into a bona fide NHL number one goaltender.

“There’s a lot to go through as a professional hockey player,” said Crawford. “A lot of ups and downs to try and stay even keel. To use those good times and bad times to try and get better is important. It was a tough road. It was definitely a grind here and there but a lot of fun at the same time. Some of the best times I’ve had, I’ve had in Rockford. I’m just thankful I got to experience all that.”

Of course, Crawford’s journey didn’t end there. He guided Chicago to Stanley Cups in 2013 and 2015, providing an unwavering presence in net. Even on a rare off night, his teammates still remember him as the calm leader that brought a relentless pursuit of victory to the ice.

“You’re just growing as a person, as a player,” said Crawford. “You’re trying to learn to get over bad goals, bad games.”

Jake Dowell played with Crawford for parts of five seasons in Norfolk, Rockford, and Chicago. “He was patient,” remembered Dowell. “He just put his head down. He worked. He was a quiet guy that just did his work. And when it was his time, he was going to make the best of it. He was a great teammate. He’s the reason we won a lot of games, too.”

Bryan Bickell lifted Lord Stanley alongside Crawford in 2013 and 2015, but also played four AHL seasons with Crow, including three in Rockford. “He didn’t have many nights off,” recalled Bickell. “Any good team, you need to have a good goalie to make long runs, and we had some good runs in Rockford.”

Crawford helped guide the Hogs to the postseason each season he was in Rockford. The deepest run he made with the Hogs came in 2008 when Rockford fell in seven games to the Chicago Wolves in the West Division Finals.

One of the recurring themes that permeates through conversations with Crawford’s old teammates is the goaltender’s quiet leadership, propelling the Hogs to the playoffs in each of the team’s first three AHL seasons.

“When Crow spoke, everybody listened because he wasn’t a man of many words,” said Dowell. “When he spoke, it meant something. He was pretty direct, and I think we all appreciated that.”

One of Rockford’s current assistant coaches, Rob Klinkhammer, was another teammate of Crawford in Chicago and Rockford, and he remembered Crawford as a stable presence in net.

“He was always very even, not too high, not too low,” stated Klinkhammer. “You’re getting one of the best in the league at that point in the AHL, giving you a chance to win every night, making big saves, and making saves you shouldn’t make. He showed up every night and wanted to win. He sort of had that burning desire.”

Crawford started Rockford’s first-ever AHL game on Oct. 6, 2007 against Quad City. Over 16 years later, he still holds Rockford’s career AHL goaltending records for games played (147), wins (75), minutes (8,235), saves (3,790), and shootout wins (13). His IceHogs career goals-against average of 2.70 ranks seventh, and his .911 save percentage ranks ninth.

“There were games that we knew we won because of Crow, and you get back in the locker room, and you’re excited for him because he’s been battling for years to make that jump from the American League [AHL] up to the NHL,” said Dowell. “At some point, our time was kind of limited with Crow, and the way he was playing, he wasn’t going to be [in Rockford] forever.”

“He was a great goalie,” said Bickell. “It was only a matter of time that he was going up, and for what he did as a Blackhawk, as a Rockford IceHog, you knew he was going to have a good career.”

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Blackhawks fans remember Andrew Shaw as a bulldog who helped Chicago to cups in 2013 and 2015. Shaw remembers Crawford as a steadying hand for those championship groups. “If you can go back to the playoff run in 2015,” explained Shaw, “Or the series where Scott Darling went in, he didn't get upset with the coach's decision. He didn't get upset with his teammates. He stayed composed and he knew what he needed to do to get back where he was and where to play. That elite level and calmness kept us calm as a team as well. We knew where we were going to get from Crow and we knew he'd rebound after a bad goal or a bad game. He is right back to where he needed to be.”

Along with his leadership qualities, Crawford developed deep bonds with his teammates in Rockford and Chicago.

“There was a good relationship that we’re going to have forever, and I know when he’s that busy running around after his kids, we’ll reunite and tell the good times. He was an outstanding goalie and a good person overall. I’m just happy to call him a friend,” smiled Bickell before adding, “He was in my wedding party. He was there beside me during my wedding day.”

“You don’t see as many super tight teams where guys stay together and stay in contact for the rest of our lives,” reflected Dowell. “I think that’s the case with that core group of guys, that everybody still stays together and talks. I think that’s a special kind of bond that we had together.”

In addition to his two cups, Crawford went on to win two Jennings Trophies for having the best goals-against average in the NHL (2012-13 and 2014-15). He led the league with seven shutouts in 2015-16, and he was named an NHL All-Star in 2014-15 and 2016-17.

Corey Crawford will always be remembered as a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Blackhawks. His NHL career speaks for itself, and his legacy as an all-time Blackhawks great is undeniable. But even with all his NHL accolades, Crawford still feels the impact of his time in the Stateline. “It’s amazing to have something like this. It’s really hard to describe, but it means a lot for all the hard work and sacrifice that you have to go through as hockey players. To be honored for it is incredible.”

Doors will be opened at 5:30 p.m. for Saturday’s game against the Chicago Wolves. The IceHogs will honor Crawford with a special ceremony on the ice starting at 6:20 p.m. with warmups taking place after.