Hockey

High On The Hog: Our Town, Their Team

The Chicago Blackhawks officially took possession of the Rockford IceHogs franchise in the spring of 2021. We are currently in the second full season in what is a 15-year agreement between the Blackhawks organization and the BMO Center (formally the BMO Harris Bank Center, more formally the Rockford Metro Centre).

The Blackhawks bought their AHL affiliate from the city of Rockford for 11.8 million dollars, giving them totally control of the franchise and ensuring that Hogs fans will be treated to AHL hockey through 2036.

Now, it’s time for those fans to get a look at the price tag for remaining the Hawks affiliate.

Cue ominous organ music here. Or not.

In reality, it would be foolish to believe that the organization would shell out nearly 12 million bucks and just retain the status quo. The Blackhawks extended a lease agreement that would have run out at the end of last season and laid down a new ice surface. This season, the big changes are being rolled out.

When this deal was announced in April of 2021, the BMO was to get 23 million dollars in renovations. The Hawks got a 13 million dollar grant from the state. The rest is being generated locally. The locals will also have to deal with the many changes that are being made around the BMO.

(Quick disclosure: I do not, nor have I ever lived in Rockford. I grew up in Northwest Illinois and currently live just south of Winnebago County. I have, however, been a IceHogs season ticket holder for over ten years.)

Where to start…where to start…let’s start with…

 

New Stuff At The BMO

This year, the scoreboard is new and is also hanging over center ice, so put a check in the “cool” column. There is a new lighting system and there are new luxury suites in the building. The restrooms have been given an overhaul. Oink Outfitters, the apparel/souvenir shop has been expanded and enclosed (more on this later).

I haven’t visited the concessions much this season, but apparently they’ve been renovated. The food stand next to section 105, which caused traffic issues, has a new roped-off crowd corral that makes a lot of sense.

The seating area of the BMO was renovated a few years back, along with the boards system, so the arena remains a pretty decent place to catch a minor league hockey game. It does appear that the Blackhawks are attempting to create an atmosphere in line with the one you’d get at the United Center, albeit on a much smaller scale.

There is definitely a movement afoot to put more of a Chicago stamp on the product, as opposed to the recent “Our Town, Our Team” slogan of recent seasons. It’s as plain as the togs the players are sporting.

 

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Over the summer, the IceHogs logo underwent a change from the previous look, shown below.

It was a pretty decent upgrade, removing the stick from Hammy’s mouth and placing his head in a circular logo with “Rockford IceHogs” surrounding him. My thought at the time, “Neat. That will look great on the sweaters.”

Change is gonna happen…no problem, right?

Cut to the announcement months later of the new Rockford sweaters. Same style, same colors, new logo…wait, what?

Where’s the ring around Hammy identifying the team as the Rockford IceHogs?

Should Rockford fans be bent out of shape because the Chicago owners erased the team name from the sweaters? Seems like a trifle, especially when you CHECK OUT THE NEW SCOREBOARD! It does seem a bit strange not to use the newly created logo being used everywhere else.

Regardless of what your opinion, we can agree that changes of this sort are done mostly to generate revenue. Before you ask, I’ve already ordered my new IceHogs sweater. Would have looked better with the redesigned logo, but there’s still a charm to the look.

Speaking of new looks…

 

Here’s Hammy Hawk…uh, Hog!

This summer, there were a series of vignettes that depicted Hammy Hog coming to a crossroads in his life and deciding to make an effort to get physically fit. He joined a gym (which, oddly enough, is a team sponsor), hit the weights with a vengeance, and presumably did a few sit-ups.

The new-and-improved Hammy made his debut right before the start of Rockford’s opening tilt at the BMO October 22. It was instantly apparent that Hammy had been faithfully attending his workouts. It was also apparent that he had visited a cosmetic surgeon.

Old Hammy:

Buff Hammy:

My first thought upon seeing the “new and improved Hammy”? “Geez, that looks a lot like Tommy Hawk.”

Hammy Slim roams the BMO with his drum in hand, jumping on railings and counters to lead cheers…a lot like Tommy Hawk does. You can see where this is going.

The new Hammy was greeted to more than a smattering of boos upon his entrance. When he visited our section, several fans shared some displeasure with his new look. Despite this, Hammy was cool enough to pose for the above photo.

To the credit of the mascot, Hammy walked his beat, led cheers, and took time to visit the younger fans. Stick tap for Hammy for going about his work in what must have been a hostile environment.

The team really hasn’t publicly explained the vastly different face, though it appears to be a permanent thing. Despite claims, Hammy hasn’t traumatized any young fans that I have seen. There is a petition with a lot of signatures asking for a return of a heftier Hammy. Many of the BMO fans continue to boo the mascot, though most have had little problem cheering him when he brings out free pizza.

Again, a big-city Chicago update to the local Rockford mascot. Just part of the plan. Did I mention the Hogs spent 11.8 million dollars on the IceHogs?

My defense of the changes:

  1. It’s got to be easier to move around and to see for the mascot.
  2. Hammy belongs to the kids. I’m there for the hockey.
  3. CHECK OUT THAT NEW SCOREBOARD!

I’m not wild about the head, but I’m not about teaching hate. When I enter the BMO, Hammy can count on a high-five and a “Keep On Truckin’, Hammy!” from at least one fan. (Note: That fan is me. I high-five Hammy and instruct him to keep on truckin’.)

 

The Wall Of Yesterday

One of the interesting things to check out at the BMO was the Stars Of Tomorrow Wall. It had photos of the many former IceHogs who had reached the NHL. Fans would often spend time during intermission checking out the wall and reminiscing about players and days gone by.

Remember when I mentioned the team store expansion? The Hawks removed the Stars Of Tomorrow display in the process.

Where are they relocating it? They’re not. They’re selling the photos in the store. For money. For them to have, see? Feel the local flavor diminishing and the corporate coffers filling. Muah-hah-hah-hah-hah.

Now, there is still some renovation to be done at the BMO. Maybe a similar display will be erected on some of the thousands of square feet of bare walls around the concourse. We’ll have to wait and see.

 

Wheel Of Broadcasters

The IceHogs have continued to use a rotation of fill-ins in the broadcast booth ever since parting ways with the long-time voice of the Hogs Joseph Zakrzewski, who last took to the mic on October 23. There has still been no formal announcement by the team on Zakrzewski’s departure or a permanent replacement.

Zakrzewski was also Rockford’s media director, a position that I assume is still vacant as well. Finding a mid-season replacement may prove to be difficult; stay tuned.

 

Change Is Change

It’s a little disheartening to see some of the Rockford taken out of the team. That said, there are some folks down in Peoria who would love to have their building upgraded with a new ice system. The team is in town at least through 2036; there are plenty of silver linings.

The Blackhawks are looking to get a return on investment, both on and off the ice. Attendance is up from last season and the IceHogs a fielding a vastly upgraded team from the young group of prospects of the last two seasons. Revenue streams have been upgraded as well, for better or for worse.

All Rockford fans can do is try and enjoy the on-ice product and the BMO experience in whatever form it mutates. It may be our town, but it’s their team.