Dennis Rasmussen wasn’t a highly touted prospect when he was first called up by the Blackhawks. He wasn’t a long-awaited draft pick, and he wasn’t a guy who had been around a whole bunch of training camps. He was no one. A warm body. An extra guy to bring along on a six-game road trip because Kris Versteeg was injured.
He didn’t really know anybody, and he didn’t know the NHL routine, especially on the road. And as excited as Rasmussen was to be called up, he was just as intimidated about walking into that dressing room for the first time.
Then Jonathan Toews invited him out for dinner. Then Niklas Hjalmarsson took him out, too. Then Corey Crawford did. Then Patrick Kane started chatting him up.
“You’ve looked up to these guys, and suddenly they invite you to dinner,” Rasmussen said. “I remember I had my dad and my brother with me, and they came up to my dad and brother and started to talking to them right away. It felt pretty good for me that they were so humble and wanted to take time to talk to not just me, but my family, too. I felt welcome right away. They took me in and took care of me. It was the perfect way to start.”
That was on the so-called ice-show trip in January of 2015. Rasmussen spent 10 days on the road with the Hawks without getting into a game, and then was sent back to Rockford for the rest of the season. But it was still a seminal moment in Rasmussen’s career. The Hawks have two long trips every year — the circus trip in November and the ice-show trip in January and February. And as daunting and exhausting as they can be, they’re crucial moments in the bonding of a team.
With five rookies on the roster (not counting Tyler Motte, who is questionable to play on the trip), the seven-game, 13-night circus trip beginning Tuesday night in Winnipeg is perhaps as important as ever.
“Whenever you’re on the road for an extended period of time, there’s definitely some bonding between players,” rookie winger Ryan Hartman said. “After games, guys aren’t going separate ways, everyone’s going to the same place. It should be a good bonding experience, and a chance to get to know some of these guys a little bit better.”
The Hawks haven’t had any multi-game trips yet this season; counting the preseason, all eight of their road games have been one-offs, where the team flies in the night before and flies home immediately after the game. It’s not as if the veterans are total strangers to the rookies — there have been a few team functions and charity events, Toews has taken the rookies out to a nice dinner, and Hartman even drove Toews home from the rink once —but there hasn’t been much downtime together.
The rookies have all been living in an extended-stay hotel, while most of the veterans go home to their families.
“At home, everyone kind of goes their separate ways,” rookie forward Nick Schmaltz said. “But on the road, you’re out together the whole time, pretty much. Being able to hang out and get to know everyone a little bit more should make it a fun trip.”
Winning helps, of course. And the circus trip has been very kind to the Hawks, who haven’t posted a losing record on the trip since November of 2006. Since 2009, they’re 25-9-3 on the trip. In the last three trips, they’re 14-3-2. And this year, the Hawks enter with an 11-game point streak, having gone 9-0-2 in that span.
“We put ourselves in a good spot going into it,” Joel Quenneville said. “We want to make sure that we keep building upon [that], knowing we’ve got some tough opponents in their buildings and they’re going to be ready.”
And in between all those games, there’ll be dinners, and shopping trips, and hangout sessions, and yes, a little Mario Kart — a game which, of course, first came out before most of the rookies were born.
“Hey, I like that game,” Schmaltz said. “One of my favorites.”