When Jeremy Morin’s phone rang at 11:30 on a Friday night and Rockford IceHogs general manager Mark Bernard’s number appeared on Caller ID, he figured the news couldn’t be all bad.
Sudden change is part of life when you’re a 21-year-old prospect in the American Hockey League. While learning the ropes of being a pro is the primary focus, Morin has discovered that in this line of work, it doesn’t pay to try to settle into a normal routine.
So he learned that the Blackhawks had requested his services for the third time in his three years with the organization, Morin packed a bag not knowing exactly when he would return. Within a few hours, Morin was on the team’s flight to Detroit, where he scored on his first shot in a 7-1 win over the Red Wings.
Three days and two games later, though, Morin’s latest NHL stint was over, returning him back to the minors and back to a life of trying to prove himself.
“Obviously, you try not to think about that going up, but it’s always in the back of your mind,” Morin said Thursday, two days after being sent back to Rockford, the Hawks’ top minor league affiliate. “You’re focused on going up there and trying to make the most of it.”
Morin and IceHogs linemate Jimmy Hayes were the latest in what’s been a long list of players who have spent time this season in both Rockford and Chicago. While AHL franchises are designed to groom young talent, the combination of a lockout-shortened NHL season and injuries to Hawks mainstays such as Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have created more movement between the Hawks and the IceHogs.
Seven IceHogs have spent time with the Hawks this season, including five who remain on the active roster. Left winger Brandon Saad has given the Hawks a recent offensive boost playing on the Hawks’ first line in Hossa’s absence.
Marcus Kruger might find a home for a bit as the Hawks second-line center. Others – such as defenseman Nick Leddy and winger Brandon Bollig – have settled into lower-line niche roles after starting the year in Rockford.
Losing talent to the NHL can take a toll on AHL executives like Bernard, who is in his fifth season working for the Hawks’ organization. But there also is gratification that comes in knowing that his staff is doing its job in getting players prepared to play for the parent club – especially in a season when the Hawks have emerged as a serious Stanley Cup favorite.
“We want to make sure that the players, when they go up there, can play in a way that (Hawks coach) Joel (Quenneville) and his staff will have trust in them and play them consistency throughout the night,” Bernard said.
For the Hawks, who remain the NHL’s top team despite playing .500 hockey after starting 20-0-3, the talent exchange with the IceHogs has proven invaluable. With the IceHogs, Quenneville has access to a AHL franchise with a history of preparing players, especially in the defensive zone so that they’re not a liability once they reach the NHL.
“The bottom line is you want to make sure that you’re getting guys ready to play,” Quenneville said. “I mean, you want to win down there (in Rockford), but we want to make sure that we have the resources to make us a competitive team where we don’t lose a beat when you’ve got to go down there.”
The reality that the big club could call at any time provides incentive for players such as Morin and Hayes. Before his recent call-up, Morin had scored 10 goals and registered four assists in his previous 10 games with the IceHogs.
But there’s pressure, Morin admits, to try to do too much once he arrives in Chicago, uncertain of how long the opportunity will last.. He does his best to treat it like just another game, but says the change of scenery often can bring some anxiousness.
Morin remembers his first call-up when suddenly, he was inundated with ticket requests and phone calls, celebrating his first hockey promotion. Since then, Morin says he has settled into more of a comfort zone around Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The secret, Morin says, is remaining grounded.
“You have to go up there and just remember they called you up for a reason to fill the role,” Morin said. “You just have to play into that role and keep your game simple and just stick to what you’ve been doing to be successful.”
Hayes has played 40 NHL games in two seasons, including 31 last year. Like Morin, he does his best to keep his game simple, attempting to replicate his playing style regardless of what level he’s playing at. At 6-foot-6, he understands what the Hawks are looking at from him, making it imperative that he perfects his skills as a powerful winger to give the big club what it’s looking for.
“You have to make sure your game is at a high level down in the minors and you have to make sure you’re game is ready to go when you get called up because you want to be able to stick and you want to make a good impression when you’re up there,” Hayes said. “It’s just about being mentally ready when you get the call.”
The opportunity, though, is often a short one.
Morin and Hayes were sent back to Rockford last week. Morin returned after only two games while Hayes lasted a bit longer, playing nine games after being called up March 17.There’s no limit to how many times players can bounce between the AHL and NHL. And as difficult as being sent back to the minors is after getting a taste of hockey’s premier level, Hayes uses each opportunity to prepare for a time when the move up might be permanent.
“You want to stick, obviously, when you’re up there but it’s part of the learning curve,” said Hayes, who had a goal and two assists in his nine games. “So you have to make sure you’re playing at a high-end pace and if you do get sent down, you have to continue that high-end pace and try to produce as much as you can.”
That will be the goal of Morin and Hayes, who could be recalled once NHL rosters are expanded for the playoffs. But for now, they’ll settle back into their role with the IceHogs, who are making a playoff push of their own. The IceHogs are in 10th in the AHL’s Western Division and would need to finish in the top eight teams to qualify for a postseason berth.
Morin won’t allow himself to get caught up in the uncertainties of whether he could be part of the Hawks’ roster when they compete for their second Stanley Cup since 2010. If another call comes, he’ll be ready. But he won’t allow thoughts of whether he’ll be part of the Hawks’ Stanley Cup pursuit change the way he plays.
“It’s obviously disappointing to [get sent back to Rockford] because you want to be up there for as long as you can,” Morin said. “But at the same time, it’s positive they gave you the opportunity to go up there and been seen.
“They’ve given me that a few times and, hopefully, they feel like I’ve made the most of those opportunities and you look forward to the next opportunity they give you.”