ROCKFORD – Nestled about a 50-foot slap shot from the frozen Rock River, the Riverview Ice House feels a million miles from the Olympics.
It’s a small rink, as most rinks tend to be, filled with 50-cent sticker machines and small TVs propped near the ceiling and large signs clearly outlining public skating rules from the local park district.
On Friday, about two dozen players for the Rockford IceHogs filled the rink’s front lobby 15 minutes before practice. Some stood on skates as they lifted pads onto their shoulders and hooked straps across their chest. Others grabbed seats in blue plastic chairs and hunched forward to tie their laces.
The topic of conversation was alligators versus snakes.
Which would win a fight?
Certainly, alligators possessed the size advantage, no one could argue that. But snakes were sneaky and vicious and not to be trusted.
Debate was lively. Snakes seemed to be in the lead. A formal vote would have provided more clarity, but time was up. Practice was about to start.
The players marched past the sticker machine and onto the ice.
On the other side of the world, the Olympic opening ceremonies had started. Before long, six former IceHogs would be in Sochi, Russia, to represent their countries and pursue gold medals in front of a global audience.
How strange to think that they once dressed in this lobby.
Let’s start with defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and forward Marcus Kruger, members of Team Sweden and alums of the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate. Scan the roster of Team Finland, and you’ll see another pair of former IceHogs: goaltender Antti Niemi and forward Petri Kontiola.
Toss in forward Mathis Olimb (Norway) and goaltender Alexander Salak (Czech Republic), and that marks a half-dozen Olympians playing in Sochi who once wore an IceHogs sweater.
Is it crazy to think today’s IceHogs could follow a similar path?
“No, I don’t think it’s too crazy,” said Adam Clendening, a 21-year-old defenseman who has played for Team USA in several events, including the World Under-18 Championship and the Six Nations Tournament.
“It’s the goal of everybody,” said Phillip Danault, a 20-year-old center from Quebec who skated for Team Canada last summer at the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
“Maybe it’s one opportunity to get the call up for me again,” said Joakim Nordstrom, a 21-year-old center who helped lead Sweden to a gold medal at the 2012 World Junior Championship. “And try to stay up there and have a few good years, and then it’s time for the Olympics again.
“There are so many good players out there. It’s a small chance, but the chance is still there. That’s a dream that I have, to play in the Olympics some day.”
Regardless of whether the Olympians play for Sweden or Finland or Norway or the Czech Republic, each former IceHog represents a part of Rockford.
IceHogs coach Ted Dent never has pegged any player as a surefire future Olympian. He prefers a narrow focus, as will be the case this weekend with back-to-back home games against the Iowa Wild and Utica Comets.
Still, Dent admitted, six Olympians was no small feat for the franchise.
“It makes us proud to have a little bit of an impact on their hockey careers,” Dent said. “It’s good to see.”
Less clear was which hockey team would win gold in Sochi. The IceHogs’ current roster includes 13 Canadians, 10 Americans and three Swedes.
Care to guess next week’s debate topic?
It won’t be alligators versus snakes.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.