ROCKFORD – Ryan Hartman has been in town for only 10 days. But, like with any sudden change, he needs time to get acclimated.
The 2013 Blackhawks first-round draft pick has already found a driving range that suits him. He’s still searching for hunting and fishing destinations that compare to the prime spots he discovered when his hockey career took him to Michigan for four years.
Now, four games into his stint with the Rockford IceHogs, the 19-year-old West Dundee native is still finding his way – on and off the ice. But much like the years since he left home when he was 15, Hartman’s life is built around settling into somewhere new.
Hartman traded a comfortable house in Ann Arbor, Mich., for his own space at the Candlewood Suites in Rockford, where a maid makes his bed and cleans the room. He has started to find good lunch spots while he adjusts to a league where players aren’t in their teens, but instead have already spent multiple years in the NHL.
The IceHogs are in the playoff chase, dropping into the ninth position – one outside of the postseason – in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference after a 3-1 loss Tuesday night in Milwaukee. Hartman logged about 13 minutes in the loss as he continues to learn a new system after recording 25 goals and 28 assists in 52 games with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers.
Hartman’s marching orders have remained unchanged. The Hawks want the winger to play his game without becoming consumed with playing against faster and more talented players on a nightly basis.
“You’ve got to adjust to that,” Hartman said. “But overall, you just try to be the same kind of player. That doesn’t really change much.”
It’s about the only thing in Hartman’s life that has remained the same.
Growing up in hockey means that at some point, the game takes players from their homes. But when Hartman left West Dundee for Ann Arbor and a spot in the U.S. National Team Development Program four years ago, Kim Hartman wasn’t fully prepared.
Ryan Hartman had learned long before to travel on his own. But this time was different. Hartman would move to Michigan, where he would attend two different high schools between his two years with the NTDP and two seasons with the Whalers. As seasoned as Ryan was in adjusting to change, though, Kim didn’t like the idea of her son growing up on his own.
“We were trying to keep the family together as much as possible,” Kim said. “We weren’t ready to let him go yet. I don’t know if you’re ever ready for that.”
So Kim moved to Ann Arbor with her other son, Tanner, who was 8 at the time, and purchased a home within the college town’s city limits. Hartman’s father, Craig, made the trip over when he could, working at his job in Inverness during his week and re-connecting with his family over the weekends.
The arrangement wasn’t ideal. But this way, Kim could at least be there for Ryan while allowing Tanner to continue to grow up with an older brother. The Hartmans’ home away from home quickly became a destination for many of Ryan’s teammates, most of whom stayed with host families. But for Hartman, a little familiarity also provided a comfort level that many of his teammates didn’t enjoy.
“As a player, you know that’s part of hockey,” Hartman said. “Growing up, even though you’re home, you still travel a lot – different countries, different states. But my mom and brother moving (to Michigan) made the adjustment 100 times easier.”
Kim made sure their new home felt normal. She regularly made biscuits and gravy – a Hartman breakfast staple. Her chicken burritos became a regular menu item along with chocolate chip cookies and milkshakes. Although Hartman’s life in hockey came with a much different schedule than other teenagers, having a regular home life proved to be valuable.
He knew his family’s routine. He understood the rules – and the consequences that came if he didn’t follow them.
“It made playing hockey a lot easier,” Hartman said. “It was just one less thing to worry about. You know when you’re coming home from the rink, you know you’re coming home to your family.”
But when Hartman was called up to the IceHogs on March 30, it meant leaving an important chapter of his life behind. It was in Michigan where his game took shape and where he was drafted by the Hawks. Leaving that home behind became tougher than leaving West Dundee behind.
“It was probably the most important four years of his life,” Hartman said.
In only a short time, Hartman established a connection with the home, building memories with teammates and family that he hadn’t in the 14 years he called the northwest suburbs home. Kim and Tanner had also established roots in Ann Arbor.
“It was very hard to pack up and leave,” Kim said, choking back tears. “You kind of felt like that was home.”
The IceHogs call-up offered Hartman the chance to come home. Before making the move, Hartman’s only trip to Rockford involved a childhood summer trip to Magic Waters, a local water park. But in just more than a week, Hartman has committed himself to again adjusting to a new place and new teammates.
IceHogs coach Ted Dent won’t pressure Hartman to do too much too fast. Outside of watching Hartman participate in the Hawks’ preseason training camp and seeing him on film, Dent didn’t know about the talented youngster’s game. So now that he is only one step away from the Stanley Cup champion parent club, Dent isn’t interested in putting too much in front of Hartman.
“We just want him to fit in and contribute when he can,” Dent said. “But if they’re playing well and they seem to be able to handle the workload and the job we’ve given them and they fit in, then, they play.”
Hartman keeps the promotion in perspective, understanding it’s just another step toward the NHL. He will keep everything in tact that he can while working on getting stronger so he can adjust to a step up in the talent level that makes up the AHL.
He has started to feel comfortable, but Hartman won’t rush into the newest chapter of his hockey journey as the Ice Hogs fight for their playoff lives.
“Obviously, the expectation is that we make it,” Hartman said. “So I’m going to keep pushing and try to push our team to get there.”
Finding a new fishing hole will have to wait.