CHICAGO | Blackhawks farmhands have two related goals: impress coach Joel Quenneville when called up, and thus get off the “Rockford Express.”
“We’re very fortunate to have the farm team so close,” rookie center Brandon Pirri said of the Hawks’ American Hockey League franchise in Rockford. “Every game you got to treat like a tryout because someone’s watching.”
The 90-mile distance from their top farm club provides tremendous convenience for the Hawks. They can summon a prospect at first light. He might even make the morning skate if traffic isn’t too bad. And he can play in that night’s game.
But the “Express” cuts both ways. A player can easily be dispatched off the parent club’s roster in place of a quick replacement. Such was the case with center Pirri, called up in place of forward Jimmy Hayes, who had started the season on the third line.
Rockford players should not lack for motivation. Although they play in an unemployment-plagued industrial town with little night life, they know with effort and production they could find themselves in that famed red sweater amid much brighter lights down the tollway.
They play for an owner, general manager and coach committed to promoting from within and freshening up the talent base every year. The Hawks do not block up almost all positions with high-salaried veterans. And they get good preparation at Rockford.
“The AHL is a very good league,” Quenneville said.”They’re playing a comparable schedule as we are. They’re the same routine. They play a comparable system to the way we play. They’re meaningful games down there.”
Pirri knows he and other homegrown Hawks couldn’t play beyond their capabilities to impress the ever-watching front-office eyes at Rockford.
The brass also can take a short drive to watch the IceHogs when the play the AHL Chicago Wolves in northwest suburban Rosemont.
“You do whatever you can; you do what they ask down in the minors,” Pirri said. “You hear there will be opportunity to get rewarded for your effort. It’s fortunate to be here, and I worked really hard to get to this point.
"There’s a reason you’re drafted. There’s things you work on every day. But you have to stay in your comfort zone. They have a plan for you. That’s what they tell you all the time, stay within yourself and keep progressing every day."
The transition from the AHL to the NHL is palpable, like in major-league baseball, where the fastballs get faster and the curveballs snap more sharply compared to Triple-A.
Quenneville defined the competition-level shock call-ups face.
“The strength in the puck area. (NHL players are) trickier, they protect the puck well. They’re strong on faceoffs as well. Responsibilities defensively, you have to be dependable and reliable down low in your end and place a little more emphasis on your responsibilities.”
Pirri won’t qualify the skills sets on which he needs to work with the Hawks. But he has one bottom line, the spur to stay away from the “Rockford Express” United Center bus stop.
“I’m in the NHL and that’s the goal right now,” he said.