It’s not as if Ryan Hartman was greeted with cold shoulders and colder stares when he made his Blackhawks debut on Feb. 13, 2015. He was greeted warmly, heartily welcomed to the dressing room, chatted up about being a hometown kid, and coached up about how to handle his first NHL game as a 21-year-old.
But every other player in that dressing room was an NHL veteran. Fifteen of them had won the Stanley Cup. So Hartman was welcomed, but he was also a bit intimidated. Isolated, even.
“It’s a different feel,” Hartman said. “The team has gone through so many different things by that point of the season — gone through some ups, gone through some downs, and they battled through that. Then you hop in halfway through, and you don’t really know the feel of what’s been going on, really.”
It’s different this year. For one thing, Hartman has been with the team since the first day of training camp. But more importantly, he’s not alone. Hartman has five other rookies — four of them young guys like himself — with whom he can share the new experience of life in the NHL.
Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, Nick Schmaltz, Gustav Forsling and second-year pro Dennis Rasmussen all live together in the same hotel. They play Rory McIlroy PGA Tour together on Xbox. They go out together for chicken parm the night before every game. And they sit around and bounce ideas off each other — experiences, concerns, educational stories, harrowing stories, funny stories about their days in Rockford or in college.
“It’s really nice,” Hinostroza said. “Usually if somebody has a question, there’s at least two of us that have the same question. We’re learning together. It’s nice having that away from the rink, too. We tend to bond. It’s pretty fun having young guys here to break in with each other.”
The Hawks’ wealth of young players might be their biggest weakness this season, as the inevitable growing pains surely will lead to off nights and wild momentum swings from game to game and shift to shift. But for the young players themselves, there’s strength in numbers — particularly for Motte and Schmaltz, who are new to pro hockey entirely. Motte played all of five games in Rockford after leaving Michigan following his junior season. Schmaltz went straight from North Dakota to the NHL.
And as demanding as life in the NHL can be — the practices, the travel, the off-ice workouts, eating right, sleeping right — it’s not as if Motte and Schmaltz have term papers to write, or classes to wake up for, or parties to attend. When you’re a kid in the NHL without a family, it’s basically hockey or it’s nothing. Hence all the Xbox.
“It definitely makes you feel more comfortable, especially these guys, who I’ve known for a while,” Schmaltz said. “It makes it a little easier. You have someone to hang out with on your off time, and there’s a lot of downtime compared to college. It’s a lot different, so I’m glad to share experiences with these young guys.”
The four rookie forwards tend to hang out the most, as the 25-year-old Rasmussen has taken the 20-year-old Forsling, a fellow Swede, under his wing. Rasmussen knows his way around the city better than the rookies, though, so he’s quite helpful for navigation and restaurant suggestions. The sixth rookie, Michal Kempny, is older, at 26, and is still learning the English language and adapting to life in the United States.
While all the rookies seem safe bets to stick around, they’ll stay holed up at their hotel — a rather pedestrian property that’s far more functional than fancy — for a while. It’s the team’s call, not theirs, when they can get a place of their own. And while that’s the goal — to be so entrenched in the lineup that the Hawks deem you a permanent Chicago resident rather than a temporary tenant — the Hawks’ band of little brothers is in no rush to break up.
There’s safety, and sanity, in numbers.
“It’s nice to have some guys you can hang with,” Motte said. “You bounce ideas off each other, talk it through a little bit. We’re all obviously excited to be here, but we can’t just be excited to be here. We’ve got to work hard, earn a spot, earn some respect. It’s nice to be able to try to do that together.”