New Blackhawks forward Ryan Carpenter has made a hockey career the hard way
Before arriving in the NHL, the Florida-born Carpenter helped revive the struggling hockey program at Bowling Green.
When Chris Bergeron became Bowling Green’s new hockey coach in 2010, he inherited a veritable disaster.
The program hadn’t recorded a winning season since 1997, had won just five of 36 games the season prior, and was only a year removed from nearly folding amidst grievous financial issues for the Ohio-based university’s athletic department. Bergeron needed to bring talent into the team, quickly.
So he dialed Ryan Carpenter.
“Ryan was my first call,” Bergeron said. “We were trying to change a culture, and to me, a willingness to work is a huge part of that change. He was absolutely willing to work at a level that not many people are.”
Nine years later, Carpenter has become only the second Bowling Green alum of the 21st century to play in 100 NHL games — and after signing a three-year contract with the Blackhawks on July 1st, he’s on pace to fly past that plateau.
Bowling Green, meanwhile, has recorded a winning record for six consecutive years now — starting with Carpenter’s final season, 2013-14 — and, this past spring, made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 29 years.
The simultaneous ascendence of the small college program and one of its proudest alumni is indicative of Carpenter’s entire hockey career to date.
A native of the Orlando suburb of Oviedo, Florida, Carpenter watched through his childhood as hockey took root in Florida. Then he personally helped bring hockey success back to Bowling Green. Then he fittingly evolved from an undrafted taxi-squad journeyman to an everyday professional player during Vegas’ inaugural season, the NHL’s own Bowling Green-esque story.
He might just be hockey’s King Midas.
“It tests your character a lot,” he said. “But then when you start to have success, you appreciate it a lot more, too.”
In Oviedo, Carpenter briefly tried baseball, but his first and true athletic love was always hockey, even in a state where the roller version was arguably more accessible than the ice version.
He was even a diehard fan...of the Orlando Solar Bears, the region’s third-division minor-league team from 1995 to 2001.
“I knew they definitely weren’t an NHL team, there were different teams I liked in the NHL, but I still thought it was really good hockey and I really enjoyed going to it,” he said. “I was definitely a huge fan.”
After proving his skill level greatly exceeded the local level of competition, Carpenter lived with a host family in Michigan for the last two years of high school, then played junior hockey in Sioux City, Iowa, before joining Bergeron’s revival project at Bowling Green.
Or perhaps it should be called Carpenter’s revival project.
“He’s somebody that just finds a way to get the job done, and always has,” said Bergeron, now the head coach at Miami-Ohio. “He was able to come in and basically be a first-line center right away. He used his work ethic along with the talent that was there all along, and he became this all-league type of player on a last-place team.”
As a freshman, Carpenter tallied 30 points in 44 games, leading the team.
As a sophomore, he one-upped himself, registering 33 points in 41 games and again leading the team.
As a junior, he missed time with injury but averaged more than a point per game (16 in 15), and while rehabbing, he helped a Bowling Green swimmer by the name of Alexis Kain learn how hockey works. Two years later, they were married.
“It started with the coaches ... and the players that were currently there buying into what it would take to win and the process of getting better every day,” he said. “It’s never fun when you’re losing, and my first couple years there we definitely lost more than we won, but it was a great opportunity for me to develop individually and play a lot.”
Carpenter parlayed that playing time into a UDFA entry-level contract with the Sharks, where he spent most of three years toiling in the AHL before a Vegas waiver claim opened up an NHL opportunity.
He seized it definitively, appearing in 36 regular season and 17 postseason games as the Golden Knights made their stirring run to the 2018 Cup Finals.
After again anchoring the Knights’ fourth-line in 2018-19 — Carpenter tallied 18 points in 68 games, plus won 52.6 percent of his faceoffs and served on the penalty kill — the 28-year-old forward became a quietly sought-after item in this summer’s free agent crop.
Hawks head coach Jeremy Colliton and general manager Stan Bowman both called within the first two days of the UFA “talking period,” but so did others.
That’s when Alexis, now nothing short of an expert on the NHL lifestyle, gave him a hint.
“When it came down to making a choice,” she said, “I told him, ‘You have a lot of good options on the table, but for some reason, I just have a gut feeling about Chicago.’”
It was a good feeling.
Carpenter’s $1 million cap hit on his new contract hardly makes him financially indispensable, and he’ll have to fight in training camp for an Opening Day spot among the Hawks’ center corps: Jonathan Toews, Dylan Strome and David Kampf return from last year’s team, newcomers Zack Smith and Andrew Shaw have histories at center, and Kirby Dach is in the mix too.
But then again, defying the odds to keep his career moving forward — and concurrently boosting the fates of others around him — is a feat he’s accomplished more than once before.
That’s why Chris Bergeron, looking back on the early-20s Carpenter he coached, isn’t surprised where 28-year-old Carpenter is now.
“People would question this or that in his game, so you just never knew,” Bergeron said. “But the one thing you did know was that as soon as somebody tells him that he can’t do it, that’s when Ryan always seems to find a way to get it done.”