Chicago Blackhawks

Blackhawks hire Jeremy Colliton as new Rockford IceHogs coach

Blackhawks hire Jeremy Colliton as new Rockford IceHogs coach

Jeremy Colliton would still love to be playing hockey. As he put it, “it’s the best game in the world to play.” But post-concussion symptoms cut his pro playing career short and led to a coaching opportunity in Sweden.

It was a successful transition. Now, Colliton will bring his coaching ability back to this side of the pond.

Colliton was hired as the Rockford IceHogs’ new head coach, the Blackhawks announced on Thursday morning. The 32-year-old Colliton has spent the past four seasons in Sweden, where he was head coach of the Mora IK. He played pro hockey for eight seasons; his final season came with Mora IK, with whom he retired in 2014 after dealing with post-concussion symptoms. This past season Colliton led Mora IK to a 35-4-13 record (105 points). But in April Colliton announced that he wouldn’t return with Mora IK, the Alberta native saying in a statement at the time that, “I feel it’s time to be closer to home.”

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement that, “Jeremy’s experience as a player and a coach will allow him to be a great leader and mentor for our young prospects in Rockford. He is coming off a great start to his coaching career with four successful seasons in Sweden and fits very well into our plan of continuing to develop our younger players.”

Colliton will inherit a Rockford team that finished eighth in the AHL Central with a 25-39-9-3 record. The IceHogs missed the playoffs for the first time in the past three seasons. Colliton said getting players ready for the NHL is the biggest task but finding team success also looms large.

“The first priority in Rockford is to help the young players develop so they can contribute and help the Blackhawks win on the NHL level. But that doesn’t prohibit you from having a winning team. That’s also important, teaching these guys how to win and what it takes to be a guy who’s trusted to be on the ice in important situations,” Colliton said. “That’s how they’ll become everyday NHLers and become players the Blackhawks can trust. The focus is on development. Winning is important but that’s the result if we’re doing the right things as far as getting better every day.”

Being in his early 30s, Colliton isn’t too much older than the players he’ll be coaching in Rockford. But he said it’s probably more about his experience in the minors more than the age gap.

“I think what is a positive for me is I’ve been in these guys’ shoes. I know what it’s like to play in the AHL and to try to break through and become an everyday NHLer. Hopefully I can use that experience as a way to help communicate the message for these guys to reach their dreams,” he said. “I’m sure there are some generational things that are easier. But as a coach, the way things are now, it’s important you can connect with these guys, build trust and it’s possible that helps because I’m closer in age.”

Colliton’s playing career was cut short due to concussions but he wanted to remain in hockey in some capacity. He found success as a coach overseas. He hopes to repeat it now in the Blackhawks’ organization.

“I’m a little bit surprised that I’ve been able to move along quickly and get into this opportunity,” Colliton said. “But I have confidence in myself and when I got [the coaching job] in Sweden, I felt like I had experience and knowledge to offer, similar to this, where I was trying to help young players become pros and pros become difference makers.”

Blackhawks' young players brimming with confidence

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks' young players brimming with confidence

Ryan Hartman is entering this training camp with a much higher level of confidence. Having a spot on this roster, something he wasn’t sure he’d have entering last fall, helps. But the confidence is a byproduct of his entire rookie season and every experience it brought with it.

“You get a full season under your belt and you’re able to feel out the game, adjust your speed and your quickness to the pace of the NHL game,” he said. “Last year was a big step for all of us, coming in here this year knowing what to expect, knowing how to play their game right and thinking of what to do on the ice.”

As several of the Blackhawks embark on their second season in the NHL there’s more certainty in their approach, whether they’re already part of this roster (Hartman and Nick Schmaltz) or trying to get one of the few coveted spots remaining (John Hayden and Vinnie Hinostroza).

When Schmaltz entered camp last fall he was fresh out of college and admittedly apprehensive – “I was nervous coming in, didn’t know if it was going to work,” he said at the team’s convention in July. There has been none of that this past week. A stronger, more confident Schmaltz has emerged, one that’s approached coach Joel Quenneville enough to give him a shot at the second-line center role.

“Yeah, it’s just familiarity with the coaching and the players,” he said. “You just know what to expect, you kind of come in with a good mindset and start off on the right track right away.”

Much like 2016, Hinostroza is on the bubble again this fall. But unlike last September he’s not sweating what may or may not happen out of camp.

“This year I feel like I’m more mentally stronger, more mature,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure at all. Maybe a year ago I did, thinking, ‘what are these guys going to do?’ But this year… I’m trying to focus on myself and I’m confident where I’m at. I made some improvements. I’m just going to believe in myself and the rest will play out.”

Hayden, on the same bubble as Hinostroza, got a taste of the NHL late last spring following his senior season at Yale. It was a small sample size but Hayden nevertheless got a good idea of what to work on entering the fall – improving his speed was a big focus – and what to expect overall.

“It’s so fast at this level. So yeah, it definitely helped playing games at the end of the year. If anything, told myself I belong at this level. There are familiar faces at camp, and it’s my job to prove I deserve to be on the team,” he said. “No [pressure]; you just control what you can and that’s my play. I put the work in for the offseason and now I have to play my game.”

Hartman’s biggest adjustment came with the speed, too – “it’s a completely different level from Rockford to here, the pace of play and how quickly everything happens,” he said. That, and being confident enough to know when to hold the puck and when to give it up.

“Right away I was getting the puck and wanting to get it to someone else just so I didn’t make a mistake. Now I’m trying to make plays and trying to better the team,” Hartman said. “I definitely feel pretty good this year.”

For the Blackhawks who got their first taste here last season, the wide-eyed part of the NHL indoctrination is over. Now to keep building on the experience. And the confidence.

Blackhawks' Alexandre Fortin finding form again after offseason surgery

Blackhawks' Alexandre Fortin finding form again after offseason surgery

Alexandre Fortin was grateful to be back on the ice this weekend, back in Chicago where he wowed the Blackhawks last fall and nearly found a spot on the regular-season roster.

His thoughts are on repeating that camp performance. What he has to keep his mind clear of, however, is the sports hernia and surgery that sidelined him for part of the summer.

“It’s normal. You don’t want to get hurt again,” he said. “When you’re starting in camp like that, everyone’s good so you just have to get to a high level quick. At the same time, you just have to [listen to] your body and do things right.”

When Fortin has been on the ice, however, he’s been impressive. Following Sunday’s outing coach Joel Quenneville talked of the young forward showing the abilities that made him such a pleasant camp surprise in 2016.

“He’s coming off that injury, missed a day and change but [Sunday] all of a sudden he had his legs, his stride back,” Quenneville said. “He’s a fast player who can back off defensemen and this year, this camp, at least we got him out there and captured that speed. He can be useful.”

Fortin had sports hernia surgery in late June; he was present at the Blackhawks’ prospect camp in July but, because of the recent surgery, was limited to off-ice workouts. He was back on ice at the team’s prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., where the Blackhawks claimed the tournament title. That helped Fortin feel more comfortable again as he returned for his second Blackhawks camp, but he’ll keep an eye on things to make sure he doesn’t re-aggravate his hernia.

“I’m in good hands here and they know what to do with me,” I just do what they ask me. Camp is long, so we’ll just keep improving every day.”

The good thing is the Blackhawks are again happy with what Fortin is doing, even in his limited work at camp. The problem is there probably won’t be room for him, at least in the early going. The Blackhawks’ depth signings in early July mean a lot of one-way contracts, and other young guys – Alex DeBrincat and John Hayden among them – are also vying for a roster spot.

Fortin will mind his injury but still wants to go through this camp the same way he did the last one, playing his strongest game and looking for an opportunity. Whether it happens now or later, he’s happy to get it.

“I mean, camp is long so you have to focus on what you can see,” Fortin said. “Like [general manager] Stan Bowman and Joel said at the beginning of camp, everybody’s here to make the team and just try to find a way to do that. That’s my plan and I’ll do what I can do and see after.”

BRIEFLY

As they usually do, the Blackhawks will send most of their young players to their first preseason game on Tuesday night in Columbus.  Asked if he would send the Alex DeBrincat-Nick Schmaltz-Patrick Kane combo that has been together the last few days at camp, Quenneville said, “maybe one of those three will go.”

The Blackhawks will start cutting their training camp roster either Wednesday or Thursday.