Hockey

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs took two out of three games this past week. The piglets spoiled Wednesday morning for hundreds of Grand Rapids children with a morning stomp of the Griffins, then split a home-and home with the Chicago Wolves over the weekend.

Rockford is now 7-6-0-1 on the season. With 15 points, the IceHogs sit in fifth place in the AHL’s Central Division. Faced with the prospect of treading water in the face of some depth issues in net, Rockford has managed to hover around the .500 mark. With the pace that is expected of the Hogs, the goaltending will be paramount to the team’s playoff aspirations.

 

Scoreboard!

What is keeping Rockford afloat the first month is offense. The Hogs are soaring at 3.79 goals per game, tied for fourth in the league.

Rockford has three skaters in the top 20 of AHL scorers. By way of comparison, the IceHogs seldom have anyone in the top 100 scorers. David Gust (8 G, 10 A) sits in eighth place, with Luke Philp (10 G, 6 A) and Brett Seney (7 G, 9 A) are among several skaters tied for 14th. Philp leads the Hogs in goals with ten and is tied for second in the league in that category.

Several Blackhawks prospects are also filling the net on a regular basis. After a torrid start, Lukas Reichel (6 G, 8 A), has tapered off after a lackluster performance on November 2 against Milwaukee. Reichel has two goals and two assists in eight November games.

Michal Teply, on the other hand, started the season with four scoreless outings before getting on track. In his last seven games, Teply has three goals and five helpers. That includes the game-winning goal in Rosemont on Saturday night.

 

Roster News

After returning from an injury last week, Jaxson Stauber was a scratch for both weekend games against the Wolves. Mitchell Weeks was recalled from the ECHL’s Indy Fuel on Thursday and dressed for both games. He stopped 24 shots at Allstate Arena in Rockford’s overtime win over Chicago.

On Wednesday, D Alec Regula was reassigned to Rockford by the Blackhawks. The next day, Ian Mitchell was called up to Chicago. On Friday, D Cliff Watson was sent to Indy by the IceHogs.

Rockford captain Garrett Mitchell suffered an injury midway through Saturday’s win in Rosemont. Mitchell was sent hard into the end boards in the Wolves zone by Chicago defenseman Max Lajoie. Mitchell quickly got up, but skated directly to the locker room with appeared to be a separated left shoulder.

Mitchell has been an unquestioned leader of this IceHogs team nearly from the moment he arrived in the middle of the 2019-20 season. There are several veterans who can pick up the slack on the ice in terms of leadership should Mitchell be out for a stretch, as may well be the case by the way he looked exiting the rink Saturday.

 

Who’s Got The Call?

Over the last couple of weeks, a voice has been missing from the IceHogs broadcast booth. Joseph Zakrzewski, who manned the microphone for nearly five seasons, broadcast what turned out to be his final game at the BMO on October 23 vs Manitoba.

Zakrzewski has been absent from the airwaves ever since. His tweet on November 8 announced that his time with the team was at an end. Like his arrival in 2017, Zakrzewski departs in the middle of the season. No announcement was made by the organization.

If the Blackhawks, who own the Rockford franchise, has a plan for the broadcast booth, it is unclear at this time. It does not appear that a permanent replacement for his position has been hired.

Several hired guns have filled the void on the air over the last few weeks. These include Chicago Steel broadcaster Mark Citron, Kane County Cougars announcer Connor Clingen, Wisconsin Women’s hockey broadcaster Reid Mangum, Tyler Kuel, and WGN’s Joe Brand, who called this weekend’s games.

Where will the carousel stop? Who knows at this point?

Zakrzewski was a well-liked broadcaster at the BMO Center who knew his game and was a fun listen. The powers that be have some big shoes to fill.

 

Who’s Got The Cup?

Rockford has hosted the Wolves on three occasions this season. I’ve been searching the BMO Center during each matchup searching for the grail-like token of glory that is the Illinois Lottery Cup.

My search, alas, has been fruitless. The ILC debuted back in 2011, where the Hogs and Wolves, along with the Peoria Rivermen (then of the AHL), waged battle for the magical chalice. When the 2019-20 season was halted early, Rockford stood poised to claim the cup with a 6-3-1 record against Chicago. Last season, the cup was earned via the Hogs 8-3-0-1 record against the Calder Cup-winning Wolves.

So, I inquire again…where is the Illinois Lottery Cup?

All signs point to money. No sponsor, no Illinois Lottery Cup. However, does it really have to be that way? Couldn’t the Lottery folks just donate this talisman to the rivalry? Could an enterprising fan purchase the cup for, say, ten bucks?

That’s the price the Blackhawks are selling the Stars Of Tomorrow placards that used to hang proudly on the wall heralding the former IceHogs that reached the NHL. Could the Blackhawks earmark some of the money they saved on the new Hammy Hog mask to obtain the trophy of Wolves domination?

All right. Way too fired up right now. Time for those recaps.

 

Recaps

Wednesday, November 16-Rockford 5, Grand Rapids 1

The piglets spotted Grand Rapids a 5-1 lead at Van Andel Arena before the Rockford offense snowed under the Griffins.

Joel L’Esperance had the only goal of the morning with his lamp-lighter 13:38 into the opening period. From that point, it was all Rockford.

The Hogs tied the game 1:18 into the second stanza with a goal by Luke Philp. The eventual game-winner came from the stick of Ian Mitchell, who scored the first of his two goals at the 3:02 mark. Lukas Reichel and Buddy Robinson also sent rubber to twine in the second period, which ended with Rockford up 4-1.

Like his first goal, Mitchell’s second tally was on the power play. It came at 4:57 of the third period and closed out the scoring for both teams.

Dylan Wells posted 29 saves to pick up his second win of the season. Mitchell, Reichel, and Robinson were voted the game’s Three Stars.

 

Friday, November 18-Chicago 4, Rockford 3

In a game where special teams played a big factor, the Wolves Nathan Sucese potted a short-handed game-winner midway through the third period.

Rockford was the aggressor for several stretches of action on Friday. That included the opening minutes, which saw the Hogs take a 1-0 lead on a Buddy Robinson goal. Robinson’s fourth goal of the season was a tip-in of an Adam Clendening shot at the 2:09 mark of the first period.

Chicago didn’t get much going until the latter stages of the period. However, they capitalized twice in the last five minutes on goals by Griffin Mendel and Vasily Ponomarev to take a 2-1 advantage into the locker room.

Luke Philp got the first of two goals on the night to tie the game midway through the second period. The goal was a short-handed set up by a fantastic effort by Rockford forward Josiah Slavin, who skated a loose puck from coast to coast before centering to Philp in the high slot.

The score stayed at 2-2 until the start of the final frame, when Malte Stromwell sent a shot past Hogs goalie Dylan Wells at the 1:51 mark for a power-play goal. Philp tied the game again with his second goal. This one also came on the man-advantage, a shot from the left circle that beat Chicago goalie Zachary Sawchenko 9:22 into the third.

The game-winner came less than two minutes later. The Wolves had exploited Wells losing his net several times throughout the evening. This time, a rebound came off the pads of Wells, rolling just out of his reach. Sucese beat several Hogs to the loose puck and deposited it into the cage at 11:20 of the third period.

Down 4-3, Rockford mounted a big push for the equalizer, pulling Wells with just under three minutes to play. A Wolves penalty gave the IceHogs a six-on-four advantage for most of the last two minutes of the game. Several shots were taken, but Sawchenko held firm to give Chicago the win.

 

Saturday, November 19, Rockford 4, Chicago 3 (OT)  

Rockford gained redemption in the rematch at Allstate Arena, though it took some extra skating to do so.

Jamison Rees put the Wolves up 1-0 4:33 into the game with his third goal of the season. The IceHogs generated plenty of chances, though they were turned away by former Rockford goalie Cale Morris.

The action picked up in the middle of the second stanza. David Gust got his stick on a loose puck at the left post, sliding it past Morris at the 7:16 mark. Shortly after Gust’s tally, Michal Teply sent an Issak Phllips feed from the left circle to the back of the Wolves net at 8:10 of the second.

Rees quickly responded for Chicago. Mitchell Weeks stopped the initial attempt, but Rees gathered the rebound and tied the game at 8:42.

Rockford took a 3-2 advantage 14:06 into the period when a shot by Alex Vlasic snuck past Morris from to top of the right circle. The Wolves got back to even ground with a shorthanded goal by Nathan Sucese at the 1:58 mark. Rockford nearly got the lead back in the final minute, but Phillips’ shot from the left circle came to a stop on the goal line, just not across it. The teams went into the intermission all even.

Neither Weeks or Morris wavered in the final 20 minutes of regulation, despite each team getting ample time on the power play. Rockford was stymied by the Wolves penalty kill four times, while the Hogs denied Chicago twice on man-advantages.

The IceHogs started Gus Macker Time with four skaters thanks to an unfinished power play from regulation. However, it took the bulk of the extra session to declare a winner. That declaration was made by Teply, who skated into the slot as the clock began to run out. His shot beat Morris, clanged off the crossbar, and tumbled into Twinesville to end the game with 11 seconds remaining in overtime.

 

This Week

The piglets have a Wednesday night showdown with Texas at the BMO, then start a home-and-home with Milwaukee in Rockford on Friday. Saturday, the Hogs travel to Milwaukee for another tilt with the Admirals.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for semi-rational thoughts on the IceHogs all season long.