Chicago will have a spotlight shined on it in an assortment of ways when the NHL Draft arrives to the United Center in 2017.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was motivated to land the draft in order to showcase the city. The Chicago Blackhawks will certainly get a bulk of the attention for their draft presentation and for all of their recent accomplishments.
But beyond what hosting the draft means to the city and the Blackhawks, it will also be a significant event for the USHL, which is based in Chicago, and Chicago-area youth hockey. The draft is a stage for all parties to celebrate and proudly display their contributions to the larger hockey landscape.
“I think it’s really cool that the Blackhawks went out on a limb to get the draft here and showcase the city and hockey community,” said Bob Nardella, who helps with the Chicago Mission AAA Youth Hockey Club (HPHL) and is a Chicago Wolves assistant coach/skills development coach in the AHL. “We can show the rest of the hockey community that Chicago is a pretty good hockey town.”
USHL commissioner and president Bob Fallen has known that for some time. Fallen, who grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has witnessed Chicago continually grow as a hockey town over the years. The Blackhawks will always be the top dog, but Chicago-area hockey has come along in many other ways.
For one, Chicago is developing a whole lot of talent.
“If you look at the ranks of guys getting into Division I, Illinois ranks in the top 6 or top 7,” Fallen said. “Illinois is producing a lot of great hockey players. I think the recent success of the younger kids is a direct result of the Blackhawks. I don’t see the prowess of the Chicago-area hockey players declining in the near future.”
The Blackhawks have played a part in the hockey boom in the city and state. More and more children are signing up to play hockey every year in Illinois. But Team Illinois AAA Hockey coach Chuck Linkenheld, who has been coaching for youth hockey for 20 years, believed the area’s recent surge in NHL draft picks came just before the Blackhawks got rolling.
Linkenheld pointed to a time about a decade ago when Team Illinois, Chicago Mission and Chicago Young Americans were pushing each other to be better AAA programs. Out of that competition, players like NHL draft picks Louis Belpedio, J.T. Compher, Christian Dvorak, Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Anthony Louis and Nick Schmaltz were produced out of the programs.
“There was a time where I had Nick Schmaltz, Anthony Louis and Christian Dvorak all on my team at one point,” Linkenheld said. “Those guys, Vinnie Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, they were ’94 and ’95 birth years. A lot of those kids set the standard for Chicago and kind of led the way. Now everybody is looking here for players. I think everyone has gotten better in what they do, how they train players.
“We’re all competitors and many of us are friends. When one team is doing really well, it’s making everyone better. You have to compete to make the kids better. Having the draft in Chicago to me is kind of symbolic. It’s getting better and better.
“I think [the draft is] great for Illinois, Chicago hockey and especially AAA kids to see that. There have been so many area players drafted the last few years. I think it’s long overdue to have it in Chicago. This a prime market for hockey players now. When I was a kid, we had to leave. We had to go out to Canada, out of town. All the guys coaching in Chicago were looking for this, looking to make it a hotbed for hockey, and it’s become a hotbed for hockey.”
What also has become a hotbed for hockey is the USHL. Just last year, the USHL had a record 37 players selected in the NHL draft. It had 35 drafted in 2014 and 32 in 2013. Fallen is hoping to spread those numbers and many others during the draft in Chicago.
“Any time you have a greater microscope on the player development in the National Hockey League in this market the better,” Fallen said. “Certainly what we’ve accomplished in our league and the players in our league in the last 6-7 years in the draft, now we got the opportunity to make that connection. It’s been a bit of an uphill battle over the last 6-7 years. Little by little, we’re clawing for a little bit of the attention of the Chicago media. If the trend continues, you’re going to hear the announcer at the United Center say from the United States Hockey League with whatever pick, you’re going to hear that over and over again.
“We’re going to use it as a platform, so we can especially promote our league and elite players. Those elite players have all the options on what path they want to take to the National Hockey League. To have the draft in Chicago is another opportunity to promote our league.”
The USHL also hopes to promote its in-market team, the Chicago Steel. The Steel, who play in Geneva, Illinois, have had 12 players taken in the NHL draft in the last 15 years. The Blackhawks scouted the Steel to draft recent picks Dennis Gilbert and Fredrik Olofsson.
Whether it’s another Steel player or Chicago-area product, the Blackhawks have in the past drafted players with area connections. Acme World Sports partner Pete Rutili, a former Mission coach and now an advisor and agent to a number of Chicago-area players, wouldn’t put it past the Blackhawks to draft locally again.
“They’ve always kind of gone out of their way to find the best players and find guys who fit,” Rutili said. “They’ve shown in past drafts, even with someone like Nick Schmaltz, who was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, but he played a majority of the time down in Chicago, if they find a guy who fits, they’ll draft them.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.