The Blackhawks can wait: John Hayden embracing his opportunity in Rockford
There are a few momentous calls in a hockey player’s life. The one informing him he has been drafted. The one informing him he has been called up. And the one informing him he can find a place to live.
Blackhawks rookies and prospects start training camp in a downtown hotel. If they make the team out of camp, they get moved to an extended-stay hotel, the kind with a couch and a kitchen. After it appears they’re in the NHL to stay, they’re given permission to find a permanent place in the Chicago area.
Alex DeBrincat got that call in late October. So did John Hayden.
So, no, Hayden didn’t expect to spend the last two months — and possibly the rest of the season — back in a hotel in Rockford while paying rent on a place in the city. But you won’t hear him complaining. Hayden knows he’ll be back in Chicago at some point. For now, though, he’s playing a major role for the IceHogs and he’s in a playoff race — neither of which would be the case were he with the Hawks.
‘‘It’s been great,’’ Hayden said during an IceHogs practice Tuesday at MB Ice Arena. ‘‘It’s been great for my development and for recognizing what kind of player I am and what I can actually be. I’m getting a lot of minutes in different situations. It’s definitely been fun.’’
With 17 games left in the American Hockey League season, the IceHogs are five points out of a playoff spot. But they’ve won three of their last four games and are brimming with confidence. Hayden has been a big part of it, with five goals and nine assists in 22 games.
So while some players sulk about a demotion, Hayden’s not even sweating the fact that the Hawks only have one regular recall left this season. Chicago can wait.
‘‘We’re in a playoff push here,’’ he said. ‘‘The last week’s been a ton of fun for us, with some big wins. So that’s where my focus is.’’
Considering he jumped directly to the NHL from Yale, it would have been natural for Hayden to view the demotion Jan. 8 as beneath him and to stew about it. But he was playing primarily a fourth-line role with the Hawks, posting three goals and eight assists in 39 games, so he took the demotion as an opportunity, not an insult. It was also a challenge.
‘‘[Sometimes] you go back to the [minors] and think, ‘Well, I’m just going to light it up,’ ’’ IceHogs coach Jeremy Colliton said. ‘‘That’s just not how it works. It’s difficult to produce offensively; it’s a good league. So it’s important you don’t try to change your game just because [you think], ‘OK, now I’m going to score points.’ You’ve got to continue to play the right way. That’s what’s going to get you back to the NHL.’’
For Hayden, that means using his 6-3, 223-pound frame to bull his way to the net, wreak havoc in the crease and punish opponents in the corners and on the forecheck. While his role in the NHL so far has been limited, he has all the makings of a prototypical power forward — something the Hawks desperately lack in their top six and on the power play.
So when the Hawks sent Hayden down, the message he got from the coaching staff and the front office was nothing he hadn’t heard before. Rockford is probably just a pit stop, but it’s proving to be important.
‘‘Since I’ve been at Yale, the conversation has been pretty similar: Try to evolve into that power game that I’ve been playing and just work on the details,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve progressed a ton here. I’ve had the puck a lot more, I’ve been playing more minutes and I definitely have more confidence. Being here has been great for me.’’
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.