- Jesse Rogers, Chicago Cubs beat reporter
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Instead, the only professional hockey to be found took place 17.6 miles northwest at the Allstate Arena, where 11 players from last year’s team dressed for the Hawks’ minor league affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, for the AHL season opener against the rival Chicago Wolves.
“I’d rather be playing than not playing hockey,” Andrew Shaw said after the 1-0 shootout loss to the Wolves.
Shaw spent half of last season with the Hawks but was sent down last month before the lockout took effect. Playing in the AHL is a consolation for these young Hawks, and Joel Quenneville, with no team to coach, will be watching closely. Quenneville and Hawks brass were in attendance as they assuredly will be until the lockout ends.
“We’re getting a lot of attention from scouts (and) from coaches,” forward Ben Smith said. “It’s great for us as players. Get in front of those coaches and show what we can do and, obviously, with no NHL it’s making this league better.”
Through a spokesperson Quenneville turned down interview requests on Saturday as did Hawks management.
The front office and coaching staff haven’t spoken publicly since the beginning of the lockout but they were in attendance as was Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks. The Wolves are the minor league affiliate for Vancouver and so the two rival coaches could only watch their prospects instead of coaching them.
“You have to make the best out of it,” NHL veteran Marcus Kruger said. “It was a good game, a good crowd.”
Kruger could have been speaking for coaches, front office personnel and players alike. There isn’t much the rank and file can do except wait until there is a positive development in the negotiations between the players and the league. Like Shaw, Kruger is simply happy to be playing.
“That’s the good thing,” he said. “I have something to focus on and don’t have to think about that (the lockout) every day.”
And maybe that’s the key for fans as well. Focus on what is there instead of what is not. The Wolves and IceHogs will battle again on Sunday and at least the future of the Hawks and Canucks is on display for all to see.
“It’s the best league to play in right now,” winger Brandon Saad said. “Every day is a challenge to get myself better so it’s definitely good for me.”
Saad is a hotshot teenage prospect, a second-round pick of 2011, who is developing at the pro level. It’s not a bad thing for him to be playing in the minors as the NHL game is on hold. But maybe the person with the most to gain during the lockout is Rockford goalie Carter Hutton. Hutton has been on a meteoric rise throughout the organization and pitching a 65-minute shutout on opening night -- in front of Quenneville -- is about as good as it gets.
“It doesn’t change a ton,” Hutton said of Quenneville being in the crowd. "Corey (Crawford) and Ray (Emery) are back in Chicago and odds are I’m here battling to try and get there. Even if the NHL is going on there’s still video and stuff like that so no matter what you’re getting seen.”
That may be true but Hutton will get to make a first-hand impression for an organization still searching for some answers in net, something goalies in particular don’t usually get a chance to do with their head coach.
“It’s hard not to pay attention to it,” Hutton said of the Hawks’ goaltender situation. “It’s out of my hands. I have to take care of business and keep developing.”
That’s the mantra for all the players on the IceHogs right now, whether they’ve played in the NHL for a period of time like defenseman Nick Leddy or are just starting out like winger Jimmy Hayes. They have no choice.
“You have to play where you have to play,” Hayes said. “That’s part of being a pro.”