CHICAGO – Several hours after what turned out to be his final game with the Rockford IceHogs, Nick Leddy woke up to go to the bathroom.
Leddy’s phone was filled with overnight text messages: The NHL lockout had ended.
Despite returning to bed, the typically low-key Leddy couldn’t get back to sleep.
“My mind started going,” Leddy said with a smile Monday.
Not only was Leddy about to return to the Blackhawks as an up-and-coming defenseman, he was about to say goodbye (again) to the minor leagues.
Think of them as The Rockford Eight. As other Hawks players picked up paychecks in Europe or trained near their homes, Leddy and more than a half-dozen of his teammates spent the bulk of the 113-day lockout assigned to the Blackhawks’ minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League.
Besides Leddy, the group included young Hawks players Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes, Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig. Skilled forward prospects Brandon Saad and Brandon Pirri were part of the contingent, as was young defenseman Ryan Stanton.
Instead of boarding charter flights to big-league cities such as Los Angeles and Vancouver, the group traveled by bus to take on AHL opponents such as the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Lake Erie Monsters.
Surely, they were jealous of teammates in Sweden and Austria and elsewhere.
“No,” said Bollig, a happy-go-lucky enforcer who tallied 157 penalty minutes in 35 games with the IceHogs. “I had no complaints playing in Rockford. I loved it, actually.”
Loved it? Really?
Maybe Leddy would rip on Rockford after playing 128 games in the NHL.
“You’ve just got to get re-used to some things,” Leddy said. “It was great to be down there with all of those guys. Most of them are really good friends.”
OK, fine. What about the lack of five-star hotels?
“It’s not too bad,” Saad said. “We’re usually staying at Marriotts.”
Divas, these guys are not.
Of course, life in the AHL required some adjustments. The Hawks typically arrive by plane the day before a road game, but that was not the case with the IceHogs.
Leddy offered an example of a minor-league game day.
“Say we were going to Peoria,” Leddy said. “That’s a 2½-hour bus ride. So we’d leave at say, 2, get there at 4 or 4:30, and then you’ve got to play the game [at night].
“Obviously, you’ve got to adapt. That was one of the bigger changes for me.”
During his travels, Leddy came to appreciate the Illinois landscape.
“Yeah, definitely,” Leddy said with a laugh. “It’s flat.”
The same cannot be said for the career trajectories of the Rockford crew. One of the top prospects is Saad, who tallied 20 points in 31 games with the IceHogs.
Before this winter, Saad had skipped from the Ontario Hockey League to the NHL.
The 20-year-old said he was impressed with his first taste of the AHL.
“It’s good competition, for sure,” Saad said. “And with the lockout, there were even better players in the league. It was tough. It was good for my game.”
Now, Saad and the rest of the group hope to carry their momentum into the Hawks’ regular-season opener Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings.
The Hawks still must determine their final roster, and a good chance exists that at least a couple of players will return to Rockford for more seasoning.
Either way, they insist that they’re better for the experience. Perhaps a long winter in Rockford will give them a running start to the NHL season.
“I would hope so,” Bollig said. “Hopefully, we might have an extra jump and have that extra spark going for us. We’ll see what happens.”
• Tom Musick covers professional sports for Shaw Media. Write to him a firstname.lastname@example.org.