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Ryan Hartman was the 30th pick in the 2013 draft. (Getty Images)

NHL Draft comes to ‘hockey hot spot’ of Chicago for first time

SHARE NHL Draft comes to ‘hockey hot spot’ of Chicago for first time
SHARE NHL Draft comes to ‘hockey hot spot’ of Chicago for first time

The low point of the Blackhawks’ dark ages — when the games weren’t on television, and the team wasn’t worth watching anyway — came during the 2003-04 season. They finished with a measly 20 wins. They barely averaged two goals. They finished a mind-boggling 50 points behind the first-place Detroit Red Wings.

Ryan Hartman was 9 years old. And the fact that he played hockey was, well, kind of weird.

“Kids asked what I do, and I said I play hockey,” Hartman recalled. “They’re like, ‘You play hockey? Who plays hockey?’ ”

Back then, not too many kids. But the rise of the Hawks at the end of last decade prompted a spike in youth hockey. And now the city has become a legitimate breeding ground for NHL talent. And just like the past few years, there will be plenty of local flavor to the NHL Draft on Friday and Saturday at the United Center — the first time Chicago has hosted the event.

A record 16 active NHL players were born in the Chicago area. And that doesn’t include Hartman (born in South Carolina) and Scott Darling (born in Virginia), who moved to the area when they were very young. The Chicago Mission, the top AAA team in the area, have nine alumni in the NHL, including Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz. Four members of the Chicago Steel, a USHL club, are on the NHL’s draft rankings this year, and three Steel players were taken last year.

While the Hawks have made a habit lately of snagging local kids in the draft — including current prospects such as Roy Radke and Anthony Louis — they insist it’s not by design. There just happens to be a ton of talent in their backyard.

“I don’t have it really broken down by geography,” said Mark Kelley, the head of the Hawks’ scouting department. “But the development that’s happening with those Chicago players, they’re second to none throughout the country. I don’t think there’s anything unique about a Chicago-area kid other than that they’re in our backyard. We don’t look at them with nepotism. They just deserve to be drafted.”

The Hawks have played a big role in the rise of Chicago hockey, beyond just serving as an inspiration for the boom. They’ve partnered with 72 rinks from Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, and have nearly 20 different youth-hockey programs. Jamal Mayers, a member of the 2013 Stanley Cup championship team, works for the team as a community liaison and youth-hockey ambassador.

“It kind of seems pretty normal now,” Hartman said. “The game of hockey in Chicago has grown so much, and there’s so many more players, so many more teams, so many more rinks now. It’s normal. It’s a hockey hot spot.”

Bartlett’s Hinostroza and West Dundee’s Hartman take particular pride in the rise of Chicago hockey. While the current boom can be traced back to the early days of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the next generation has true hometown heroes to serve as inspiration. Hinostroza still keeps tabs on all his old teams, catches a game or two when he can, and helps out in summer camps. The idea that kids — who 10 or 11 years ago wouldn’t have been able to pick a Blackhawks player out of a lineup — flock to him and seek out his autograph is still a little mind-boggling.

“It’s cool,” Hinostroza said. “We were all in the same shoes as those kids. We try to let them know that it’s not too weird to have a Chicago kid in the NHL, and that this could be them one day.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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