It's been quite the hockey journey for Bill Sweatt. And it's one that has landed him, for now at least, right back at home.
Sweatt, a whippet-quick left winger for the Chicago Wolves, is a 23-year-old native of West suburban Elburn who spent much of his youth tearing it up at local rinks around the Chicago area.
At one time, Sweatt seemed destined to make it with another Chicago hockey team, as the Blackhawks made him their second-round pick (38th overall) in the 2007 entry draft.
Sweatt decided to stay at Colorado College, where he excelled both on the ice and in the classroom, earning a degree in mathematical economics.
He's now skating, and quite quickly, for the top farm team of the Hawks' hated rivals, the Vancouver Canucks. In December, Sweatt made it to the NHL for the first time, playing two games for the Canucks.
Life is funny like that sometimes.
"Yeah, it is," Sweatt said recently at the Wolves' practice rink in Hoffman Estates. "It's really funny. It was exciting at first (to be taken by the Hawks), but after my senior year, we couldn't agree to a deal. I ended up going into free agency and becoming part of Vancouver. But it is funny how it works out that way. Somehow, you always end up back home."
Home as a kid for Sweatt was Lombard and Elburn, but his homes away from home were any number of ice rinks and hockey teams in the area: the Flames in Glen Ellyn, the Chicago Young Americans and Team Illinois. He completed one year of high school at Kaneland before moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take part in USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.
Sweatt earned his degree at Colorado College and now is pursuing his MBA online from the University of Nebraska.
He played last year in the American Hockey League for the Manitoba Moose with his older brother, Lee, who played in three games for the Canucks last year before retiring last summer to pursue a career in finance.
Bill expressed no regrets about things not working out with the Blackhawks.
"At the end of the day, it's a business, and they told us how they saw me and what kind of player they saw me as," he said. "They offered me a contract, and we just didn't agree. It happens. Water under the bridge."
The Wolves are getting a good idea of the player they believe Sweatt can become.
"He's going to be a guy who's a reliable player that has a bunch of speed to compete at the next level, and he's made a lot of progress since the season started," said head coach Craig MacTavish. "There should be a lot of optimism, both from the organization and from his perspective."
Speed is the first thing you notice when you watch Sweatt. In last week's game against Rockford (the Hawks' top farm club) at Allstate Arena, Sweatt twice blew past defensemen to create plays.
"I don't think he realizes how fast he is," said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. "I've seen him get around players and not realize he's around the player. In a game at Milwaukee, he went around two 'D' (defensemen), and he passed it back when he had a breakaway. I don't think he realized how fast he was going."
As far as scoring goes, Sweatt has 10 goals and 11 assists and is a plus-4 heading into this weekend's two-game set at Rockford.
"Honestly, people used to criticize me back in the day that I was all speed but I didn't have the finish," he said. "I work on it every year, almost every practice, every summer, just doing stickhandling and trying to get my hands caught up with my feet. I think I get better every year with it.
"Last year, I had 20 goals in the AHL. I don't think that's terrible. It kind of upsets me sometimes to see that (criticism). It just gives me the motivation to work harder."
If there's such a thing as a good ticket for speeding, Sweatt hopes speed will be his ticket to making it to the NHL for good one day.
"I would say that the biggest thing that will get me there and hopefully keep me there is my speed, getting in there on the forecheck and kind of causing problems for the defensemen and causing turnovers and getting the puck back in on the forecheck," he said.
Most observers say the biggest difference with the NHL and AHL is the speed of the game. Sweatt has his own take.
"I always characterize it differently," he said. "I don't think it's faster. I think it's quicker, because they pass the puck quicker, they make decisions quicker. And their passes are smooth and on the tape. So everything flows quicker. But the individual players aren't necessarily faster. It's just everything's more fluid. That's why the game looks faster."
Although Sweatt's taste of NHL action was a small one, it was a good taste nevertheless. Called up in December, he got into two games for the Canucks, with his brother on hand for the first game and his parents for the second.
"It's amazing," he said. "Honestly, I was sitting in the lounge here at the rink. Wendell and our assistant coach (Karl Taylor) came and said, 'Can I talk to you real quick?' They said, 'You're getting called up.' I didn't know what to say. I was in shock. I just kind of sat there and smiled. I really didn't have the words to come out of my mouth. It was exciting, and hopefully, I'll get to do again soon.
"Definitely when you first get up there, it's a little shocking. And you're a little awe-struck because growing up, I was watching some of these guys and collected their hockey cards. I played with them on video games. All of a sudden, you're playing with them. The hardest part is getting over that. Once you get over that, you can kind of settle in and feel more comfortable."
If Sweatt's career path keeps arcing upward, he could have a nice career in the NHL. That's every hockey player's dream. But life after hockey can creep up as quickly as Sweatt can skate. His strong academic performance and continuing education efforts, he said, were instilled long ago.
"Parents," he said, referring to dad Walter and mom Dottie. "At an early age, they said, 'Hockey is fun, and you're going to work hard at that, but school always comes first.' They always taught us at a young age, if we were fortunate enough to make it as this level and we can play for money and make a pretty good living, it doesn't last.
"There are a lot of guys out there who probably do think that it will last, and they don't really have a fallback plan."
For Sweatt, that long-term plan looks to be following his brother's footsteps into a career in finance. Until then, there's hockey to be played.
"I knew last year I was probably realistically going to spend a year in the AHL," he said. "I had to adjust to a smaller rink and the pro game. This year, I was happy to get a chance. Maybe I'll get another small chance at the end of the season. Hopefully next year, it's knocking right at the doorstep from Day 1."