Rockford, Ill- The Chicago Blackhawks and Rockford IceHogs recently extended their affiliation. However, just as the IceHogs prepare players to move to the NHL, the team’s ECHL affiliate develops players to jump right into the line-up in Rockford. Affiliates since the 2014-15 season, the Indy Fuel have helped the ‘Hogs to on-ice success. The affiliations among Chicago, Rockford, and Indy, as well as the NHL, AHL, and ECHL have become vital for players hoping to make the next step.
The Indy Fuel, founded in 2014-15, marked the return of professional hockey to Indianapolis following the 16-year tenure of the Indianapolis Ice, which operated from 1988-99 in the International Hockey League and 1999-2004 as a member of the Central Hockey League. The Ice served as the primary affiliate for the Blackhawks from 1989-1998. The Fuel signed a five year-affiliation agreement in April 2014 with the Blackhawks which will run until the 2019-20 season.
This past season, the IceHogs tapped into their Indy pipeline to find talented players to round out their roster on numerous occasions. A total of eight players spent time between Rockford and Indy: Defensemen Kirill Gotovets, Nick Mattson, Sam Jardine and Dillon Fournier, wingers Josh Brittain and Daniel Ciampini, center Chris DeSousa and goalie Mac Carruth.
Defenseman Nick Mattson was periodically shuttled between the two teams before finding a permanent spot with the IceHogs in late March. He racked up seven points (1g-6a) in 17 total games for the IceHogs and skated in two playoff games recording one assist. The Chanhassen, Minnesota native collected 15 points (1g-14a) in 48 games played for the Fuel.
Coming from the college ranks, Mattson used his time in Indy to familiarize himself with the professional game.
“Being a pro, obviously my rookie year is a lot different than any previous seasons so just learning to take care of myself,” said Mattson.
Mattson became more relaxed during his stints with the IceHogs as he adjusted to the different playing style of the AHL and pro game.
“Overall, it is just confidence. Much of the game is really in your mind so once you get your mind right, it felt so much more comfortable out there,” Mattson stated.
Defenseman Kirill Gotovets spent most of the 2014-15 season with the Fuel before becoming a permanent fixture in the IceHogs defense this past season.
“Indy helped me a lot, I worked hard there to show the coaches and management that I can play at that level,” said Gotovets.
That hard work payed off as the blue-liner was named the IceHogs 2015-16 Most Improved Player. The Minsk, Belarus native registered 16 points (2g-14a) in 62 games this past season. However, Gotovets is not satisfied with the accolades and wants to keep on improving his game.
“I have to work on a little bit of everything. You can never be perfect, continue working on skating, working on decision-making and physicality,” said Gotovets. “You have to work on everything.”
Center Chris DeSousa did not spend much time with the Fuel, registering 16 points (7g-9a) in 20 games in 2014-15 and playing in only two games this past season before joining Rockford for the duration of the 2015-16 campaign. It does not mean he did not cherish his time there.
“I think it was a good fit for me in Indy. I got to play a lot and got to know the pro game,” said DeSousa. That development was crucial for DeSousa as he played in 62 games for the IceHogs this past season and recorded 13 points (7g-6a). He was rewarded for his efforts in Rockford as he re-signed with the team for the 2016-17 season.
The learning curve can be tough for any first year pro but DeSousa did not waiver from the challenge.
“I learned how to be a pro on and off the ice. Coming to work every day, it is a long season,” DeSousa said. The gritty center, with a penchant for penalty minutes, was willing to do whatever it took to win and has his sights set on the future.
“I learned to play my role where there was space for me on this team and I’m looking to have a bigger role next year,” stated DeSousa.
Goalie Mac Carruth is no stranger to the roads traveled between Indy and Rockford as he played 39 games with the ECHL squad in 2014-15 and played in 25 games during the 2015-16 season registering a 12-10-3 record, 2.43 goals against average and a 0.918 save percentage. The net minder accredits his time in the ECHL to his success in Rockford.
“There are skilled guys in that league. There are leaders down there, good hockey players and that contributes a lot to guys getting called up and playing well,” said Carruth.
The Jackson, Wyoming native became the starting goalie for the IceHogs down the stretch this past season and performed admirably, registering a 6-5-2 record in 17 games played, 2.30 GAA and a 0.926 save percentage. He did this despite the constant shuffling between the AHL and ECHL.
“It is tough to go down because you are used to a certain level of play. You have more time to think in the ECHL,” Carruth said. “Coming up here is the exact opposite, you don’t have as much time, that half-second to think about things.”
The Blackhawks took notice of his development and re-signed him to a one-year contract due to his strong play during the end of the season and into the playoffs. After being the go-to-guy in Indy, he will have the opportunity to fight for the starting job for Rockford in 2016-17. The 6’2” goalie has posted a career record of 10-8-3 in 27 games with Rockford to go along with a 2.56 GAA and .923 save percentage and three career shutouts. Carruth was originally selected by Chicago in the 7th round (191st overall) in the 2010 NHL Draft.
The Indy pipeline has been strong for the IceHogs during the past couple of seasons and that relationship will only continue to grow. These ECHL products have stepped in and become big contributors right away for Rockford. The ECHL has become a crucial developmental stage for players wanting to progress into the AHL and ultimately, the NHL.