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Blackhawks moving toward purchasing Rockford IceHogs while increasing focus on AHL development

At least 19 NHL teams already own their AHL affiliate. The Blackhawks could soon join that group, cementing their control over an increasingly important part of the organization.

Rockford’s BMO Harris Bank Center will receive $23 million in renovations.
The Rockford IceHogs’ BMO Harris Bank Center is 40 years old and needs improvement.
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The Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, likely will be sold by the City of Rockford to the Hawks in 2021.

The Rockford Area Venues and Entertainment Authority (RAVE), which oversees the IceHogs, filed a Request for Proposals (RFP) on Wednesday to accept bids on the team.

The RFP is the first step in a process that most believe will result in the Hawks purchasing their own affiliate, following a trend set by many franchises in recent years. At least 19 NHL organizations already own their AHL affiliates.

“At the direction of our ownership, we are exploring many ways in which the Chicago Blackhawks can work more closely with the city of Rockford and the American Hockey League to enhance our standing in the sport while increasing that economic benefit to the city and state,” the Hawks said in a statement. “Obviously, we are looking closely at the city’s overture as a means to accomplish those goals.”

The IceHogs have been the Hawks’ AHL partner since moving to Rockford in 2007, but the current affiliation agreement is set to expire at the end of the 2021-22 season.

The purchase of the team would cement the affiliation and the IceHogs’ future in Rockford, while giving the Hawks full control over business decisions and some financial hurdles.

The IceHogs’ arena, the 6,200-seat BMO Harris Bank Center, needs modernization after turning 40 this year. IceHogs ticket sales also have lagged, dropping attendance to 3,759 last season (sixth-lowest in the AHL).

If the purchase goes through, the Hawks would relieve RAVE of its $400,000 annual affiliation payments and plan to spend $20 million on BMO Harris Bank Center upgrades, WTVO Rockford’s Scott Leber reported this week.

The Hawks’ front-office changes last summer stimulated increased dialogue between the team and the IceHogs about “strengthening our partnership,” ultimately leading to this new direction, RAVE chairman Craig Thomas said in a statement.

“Based on those discussions, we believe it may be in the best interest of the team, and equally important the City of Rockford, to consider expanding our relationship to include a deeper investment by the Blackhawks in Rockford,” Thomas added. “The RFP is an important first step in evaluating the positive impact of an expanded Blackhawks presence in the community.”

The Hawks’ off-ice move toward purchasing the IceHogs comes as the on-ice affiliation also takes on a different dynamic in 2021.

On one hand, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman’s increased focus on building through youth at the NHL level has made prospect development at the AHL level even more important.

Most of the rookies exceeding expectations on the Hawks this season — Kevin Lankinen, Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev, Nicolas Beaudin and others — all gained key experience in Rockford last season. Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton also traces his roots in the organization to coaching the IceHogs in 2017-18.

The Hawks have stacked the IceHogs’ roster full of more highly touted prospects this season, including Evan Barratt and Wyatt Kalynuk, the No. 5- and No. 6-ranked prospects, respectively, and recently sent down Beaudin, Collin Delia and Lucas Carlsson for tune-ups.

But young rosters are often death curses (standings-wise) in the AHL.

Additionally, the NHL’s new taxi squads and COVID-related travel restrictions mean the Hawks now bring 28 or 29 players on their road trips instead of the usual 20 to 23, further gutting their AHL depth during those stretches.

As a result, the IceHogs have struggled mightily. On Wednesday, an embarrassing 9-4 loss to Grand Rapids, the Red Wings’ affiliate, dropped their record to 1-7-1.

“Being competitive is part of development,” Colliton said Thursday. “But at the same time, it is a special circumstance this year. More than anything, we just want to know [their players are] improving and doing everything they can to hopefully be contributors for us down the road.”