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Former Knight gets shot at the big time

Former Elburn resident and Kaneland High School student Bill Sweatt made his NHL debut last week with the Vancouver Canucks and is now playing for the Chicago Wolves.
Former Elburn resident and Kaneland High School student Bill Sweatt made his NHL debut last week with the Vancouver Canucks and is now playing for the Chicago Wolves.

His Vancouver Canucks teammates sent Bill Sweatt charging onto the ice for pregame warmups in a game last week at Montreal, seemingly an odd honor to bestow upon a recently called-up rookie.

Sweatt, a former Elburn resident who attended Kaneland, wasn’t exactly stunned when his teammates didn’t follow, leaving Sweatt to awkwardly circle around the ice solo for about a half-minute.

Sweatt’s older brother, Lee, now retired from hockey, once underwent a similar NHL initiation ritual.

“I knew the drill,” Sweatt said. “So I just accepted it.”

Sweatt played two games last week with Vancouver, at Montreal and at Ottawa, before being returned Tuesday to the Chicago Wolves, the Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate.

A former second-round draft pick of the Blackhawks, the 23-year-old left winger relished his first taste of the hockey big-time.

“It was everything I thought it would be as far as crowd, pace – everything,” Sweatt said.

Sweatt lived in Elburn from kindergarten through his freshman year at Kaneland High School before moving to Lombard. He went on to play hockey at Colorado College, after which time the Blackhawks traded his rights to the Toronto Maple Leafs in June 2010. He didn’t sign with Toronto, through, inking a three-year, free-agent deal with the Canucks later that summer.

Sweatt is in his second year of minor league hockey and first with the Wolves after thriving last year with the Manitoba Moose, for whom he was second in points (46).

He figured he might be on the verge of a Canucks call-up because of a couple injuries but still was pleasantly jarred when given the good news at a Wolves practice last week.

The speedy winger saw modest playing time in the wins at Montreal and Ottawa but said he thought he held his own and avoided novice mistakes. Asked which aspects of the game are toughest to adjust to at the NHL level, Sweatt said it’s a whopping challenge across the board.

“It’s everything,” Sweatt said. “Everything has to be up another, extra level, even the things you’re good at. The things you’re bad at have to be bumped up two levels, so it’s a little bit of everything.”

Sweatt was having breakfast at the team hotel in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday morning when one of the Canucks’ assistant general managers informed him he was ticketed to rejoin the Wolves. Sweatt said he had no expectation of how long he would remain with the Canucks but wasn’t surprised it was a short-term promotion based on the Canucks’ fluid injury situation.

Sweatt’s Chicago-based agent, Scott Norton, called Sweatt’s week with the Canucks the first major benchmark of his career. Ideally, sticking it out in the NHL is the next one.

“I think this just whet his appetite and he’s going to work harder than ever to achieve it on a full-time basis,” Norton said.

The Canucks – as Blackhawks fans can grudgingly attest – are one of the top teams in the NHL. Their depth of talent makes Sweatt’s task of finding a home on the NHL roster even more difficult than if he were part of a lesser franchise.

“It definitely adds to the toughness of you getting a shot, but, in the future, you never know what can happen,” said Sweatt, who is living near Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg while playing with the Wolves. “Guys can get traded, guys can retire, and they’re going to need new people, fresh blood, for sure. That’s what you have to kind of look forward to.”

His older brother, Kaneland graduate Lee Sweatt, grew wary of playing that game. After three games in the NHL last year – also with the Canucks – Lee Sweatt, a defenseman, signed a two-year deal during the summer with the Ottawa Senators. However, a few weeks later, Lee Sweatt opted to retire, and moved with his new wife to Colorado to pursue a career as an investment manager.

Bill Sweatt said he originally tried to talk his brother out of giving up hockey but is glad he seems to have found happiness. As for his own long-term agenda, the plan is to build off his recent NHL cameo and hope another opportunity awaits.

“It all depends on what happens,” Sweatt said. “You never know until after you’ve lived through it, gone through the frustrations and pains associated with playing all of those games and dealing with getting called up, sent down, not getting a chance, getting a chance. ... It’s a yet to be decided, you never know what’s going to happen kind of thing.”

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