Hawks-Canucks rivalry alive and well in AHL
While Gary Bettman threatens to flush another NHL season, and in the process deprives the hockey faithful of one of life's essentials, there is another game in town.
Actually, it's the only game in town.
The Chicago Wolves open their season next weekend with games at the Allstate Arena Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
And guess what? Both are against the Rockford IceHogs. Coincidence? Probably not.
"Two games with Rockford in about 18 hours," said Wolves GM Wendell Young with a smile. "I don't know if that was by design or not, but the parent clubs have a great rivalry and we have the local rivalry, as well, because the teams are so close geographically.
"No one in hockey wants an NHL lockout, but the true hockey people want to see hockey and this is the only place to see it. We should see a substantial bump from it."
Yes, tickets are going fast to see the Canucks' affiliate against the Blackhawks' youngsters, both of which feature NHL players throughout the roster.
Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev will be in Rosemont, along with Eddie Lack, Guillaume Desbiens and Jordan Schroeder, who expected to make a bid for the NHL roster had there been a camp.
In Rockford will be the likes of Nick Leddy, Dylan Olsen, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Ben Smith, Brandon Bollig, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Kyle Beach, not to mention a plethora of Hawks draft picks and prospects.
"Everyone's in a tough spot, from the NHL to the AHL to the players involved," Young said. "The lockout will end, at some point, whether it's a week or a month or a year, and we have to be prepared for that, too.
"Until then, you have a lot of players in limbo, wondering whether they'll be here or in the NHL.
"In the meantime, we believe it's an incredible opportunity for our fans to see four or five NHL players every night on every team, and on some teams even more.
"There's going to be a lot of high draft picks on every team playing in the American League. You're going to have two finalists for NHL rookie of the Year last year in the league. There's going to be a lot of great young players and the hockey will be high quality."
For players like Leddy, who have already established themselves in the NHL, you would think this a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, it's a place to play hockey.
"Guys are going to Europe so they don't fall behind," Young said. "They're basically telling European clubs, 'I'll play for free. Just insure my contract and I'll play.' Guys want to be at full stride when the lockout ends.
"They should appreciate this chance. They should get out there and dominate in this league if they're NHL players. Nick Leddy should skate the puck and dominate the power play.
"A guy like Kassian should dominate physically and show his skills and play just like he does in the NHL. They should play with the same pride they do at the NHL level.
"For guys like Kassian and Tanev, their teammates are counting on them, and that should be motivation enough."
After practice Thursday, Kassian said he feels no entitlement whatsoever and understands he's been handed a great opportunity with the Wolves.
"You have to earn everything in hockey and I'm here to earn playing time," Kassian said. "We all want to be in the NHL but there's no NHL right now, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise.
"I get to develop my game more and be ready when the lockout ends and that's enough motivation right there.
"People don't realize the AHL is a very good league and there's a lot of very good players in this league. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a grind just like in the NHL. Every game will be important."
None will be more entertaining than Chicago vs. Rockford, which for the fans will bring a Canucks vs. Hawks feel to it right away. One can imagine Kassian and Bollig looking for each other as they tried to do at the United Center last March.
Kassian had only been with Vancouver for 9 games last season after the trade from Buffalo when the two NHL clubs met on the West Side.
"Hopefully, it will be fun to play in those games," said the 21-year-old Kassian. "I don't know that much about it yet, but a rivalry makes the games more exciting for the players, too. The guys will fill me in I'm sure.
"It's exciting to be here in Chicago. It's a great hockey town with great fans and I feel fortunate to be here. I can't wait to play hockey here."
At practice Thursday, most of the Canucks' front office was in attendance, including GM Mike Gillis and his staff. They were in town all week keeping tabs on their kids.
"It's tough on everyone," Young said. "It's really difficult for the AHL teams, especially the coaches, and it's tough on the players.
"Basically, we're in playoff mode with a taxi squad sitting out every night. That's the downside. This is going to hurt the development of some young players who should be playing more.
"Guys who should be in your top four defense or top six forwards will be pushed lower down by the NHL players here, so they'll get less ice time. Guys below them won't be getting as much ice time, so there's a domino effect down through the roster."
Yeah, there isn't anyone in the hockey world who wants to see an NHL lockout, but this is what Bettman has given us and until he gives us back the NHL, there's only one hockey game in town.
It's in Rosemont — and it should be pretty darn good.
•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.
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