Our beloved team has seen ups and downs this milestone season, but that won’t stop local hockey fans from clanging their cowbells at many games still to come. See how the ‘Hogs have brought excitement and goodwill to Rockford over the past two decades.
Craig Samuelson and his wife, Theresa, have been lifelong hockey fans. The Loves Park residents fondly remember going to Chicago Blackhawks games in the old Chicago Stadium back when the couple was dating. “Those were some terrible teams,” says Samuelson, laughing.
But then something special happened. In 1998, local hockey fans like the Samuelsons rejoiced: Rockford got a hockey team of its own.
“It’s such a wonderful game to watch live,” says Samuelson. “Hockey is a perfect fit for a town this size. With the promotional activities and affordable prices, it’s not just an experience for hockey purists. It’s a lot of fun and it’s an exciting game for anyone to watch.”
It’s been 20 years since the Rockford IceHogs came to town, offering diehard and novice hockey fans alike a unique brand of entertainment. Where other local professional basketball, football and baseball teams have come and gone, the IceHogs have captivated fans like no other team has before.
This season, the IceHogs are shooting to bring a second championship to Rockford. It’s been a rocky start, however, thanks to an early season coaching change and some key injuries, but the IceHogs have time to turn it around.
“I think [celebrating] 20 years is significant because we’ve seen how hard it is to have longevity when it comes to our local sports teams,” said Mike Peck, IceHogs director of business operations. “The Rockford Lightning [basketball] lasted 20 years, but we haven’t had a baseball team last that long.
“We hope this is just the beginning. We want to grow this thing and 20 years from now we’ll be talking about the 40th anniversary. That could happen if the community supports us like they do.”
Entering the month of December, the IceHogs, the top affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, got off to an unremarkable 9-8 record, good enough for fourth place in the American Hockey League’s Central Division. The AHL started play in 1936 and is the top development league for all 31 National Hockey League teams. According to the league’s website, 87 percent of the current NHL players once played in the AHL.
The IceHogs are hoping to make up ground in the second half of the season, due in part to a favorable home schedule.
“Last year, we had a lot of home games in October, November and early December; most of our home games were done before Christmas,” Peck says. “This year, we have more home games in the second half of the season, when fans want more hockey. Early in the season it’s hard for fans because there are a lot of fall activities going on like football, apple orchards and festivals.”
To recognize this milestone season, the IceHogs have unveiled a 20th anniversary logo. The team will also hold a name your all-time favorite IceHogs player contest.
“There will be a lot of reflection this season including the top moments in team history,” Peck says.
And there’s plenty to celebrate.
Rockford’s first hockey franchise came to northern Illinois from Thunder Bay, Ontario by an ownership group named United Sports Venture. The team name “IceHogs” was chosen by local residents as a part of a fan contest, beating out names like Rhinos, Mighty Oaks, Roughnecks, Ice Rangers, and Rockets. As members of the United Hockey League, the IceHogs played its first game on Oct. 15, 1999, beating the Knoxville Speed 6-2 at the downtown arena then called the Rockford MetroCentre.
In the fall of 2002, the team was sold to Tri-Vision Sports LLC, a local group of investors led by Rockford businessmen Jim McIlroy, Jeff Smith and Dr. Kris Tumilowicz, who purchased the IceHogs with the goal of keeping the team in Rockford after the USV group threatened to relocate or fold the franchise.
In 2003, the IceHogs formed a partnership with the Rockford Park District to create the Jr. IceHogs youth hockey program. The in-house youth hockey league plays at public ice rinks Riverview Ice House and Carlson Ice Arena and has endeared the IceHogs to a young base of hockey fans.
Two years later, the IceHogs signed their first ever affiliation agreement when they became the United Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Nashville Predators and AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. The IceHogs spent eight seasons in the UHL and won its first championship in 2007, beating the Kalamazoo Wings 3-1 in Game 7 to take home the Colonial Cup in front of an IceHogs postseason record 6,236 fans.
“That year was special,” says Samuelson. “Winning the Colonial Cup is a memory that fans will never forget.”
In 2007, a new era of history began in Rockford as the IceHogs made the leap to the American Hockey League signing a 10-year deal to become the top affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks. The city of Rockford owns the franchise rights to the IceHogs, paying the NHL club an annual affiliation fee of nearly $900,000 to host its top minor league team.
During the 2014-15 season, the IceHogs had another exceptional year on and off the ice. Rockford set AHL franchise records in points (99), wins (46), road wins (22), winning percentage (.651) before losing in the second round of the playoffs. However, the Blackhawks went on to win their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, which included contributions from 12 former IceHogs.
Last year, Rockford started out slowly, hovering around the .500 mark until they went on a late run, clinching a playoff spot in the third to last game of the regular season. The team stayed hot in the playoffs, sweeping the Chicago Wolves and Manitoba Moose, before falling to the Stars in the Western Conference championship series.
“We had a taste of success last year and the town really came together,” Peck says. “They remember the playoff run when our building was electric. We hope that carries into this season.”
Pipeline to Chicago
The goal for any IceHogs player is to one day play for the Blackhawks in Chicago’s United Center. More than 100 IceHogs have appeared in the NHL, and two-thirds of them have suited up with the Blackhawks.
The list includes 22 players who were members of the three Stanley Cup champion teams including: Bryan Bickell, Brandon Bollig, Nick Boynton, Troy Brouwer, Corey Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brandon Saad. Six IceHogs made their NHL debut last year with the Blackhawks: Matthew Highmore, Collin Delia, Victor Edjsell, Carl Dahlstrom, David Kampf and Jeff Glass.
One of the first call-ups this season was a surprise move – the promotion of IceHogs head coach, Jeremy Colliton. The Blackhawks organization hired the 33-year-old Colliton to coach the IceHogs last year after he spent four seasons coaching in Sweden. He did well, taking the IceHogs to the playoffs after they won only 25 games the year before. This season, Colliton lasted just one month behind the IceHogs’ bench, before being named the 38th coach in Blackhawks’ history, replacing Joel Quenneville, the second winningest coach in NHL history.
“My goal down the line is to get back to the NHL as a coach,” said Colliton before the start of the season. “We all want to reach the highest level. The reason I came here was to work with people who have won at the highest level like coach Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman. All the players in Rockford are talented and have skills. But part of development is learning how to win. The Blackhawks are trying to win Stanley Cups and the IceHogs are trying to win too.”
With Colliton off to Chicago, interim head coach Derek King is finally getting a crack at running his own team. King was a first-round draft choice of the New York Islanders in the 1985 draft and enjoyed a solid 14-year NHL career. Now it’s his job to get the current crop of IceHogs ready to make the leap to the next level.
“My advice to them is don’t be in a rush,” he says. “If it takes an extra year to fine tune your game, so be it. The big thing here is to continue to get this team to the playoffs so they can get a taste of playoff hockey, which helps them develop. I know it’s the AHL, but playing in Game 7s here is just as important as playing them in the NHL.”
One of the top IceHogs players is Tyler Sikura, the team’s most valuable player last season. “It was one of those seasons that I met my personal goals, and it ended up being a dream season, both individually and as a team,” he says.
Sikura – whose younger brother, Dylan, also plays for the IceHogs – wasn’t drafted. He played in the ECHL for Toledo and was traded to Manchester (Maine) before finding a home in Rockford. Sikura is hoping his strong play with the IceHogs will punch his ticket to Chicago. “It’s a matter of waiting for my opportunity,” he says. “The goal is not to go up for a game or two; I want to stick around. The Blackhawks organization took a chance on me, so I would like to reward them by becoming an NHL player in Chicago. It would be special to do it for the Blackhawks.”
Playing in Rockford is a benefit for both IceHogs players and the Blackhawks’ brain trust. “It’s nice to be close to Chicago; it’s convenient for guys to go up and down,” Colliton says. “The players in Rockford know how involved the Blackhawks are with the team. They’re in the building every night. The players know, if they play well, they will get an opportunity.”
Jersey Auctions and Bobbleheads
Besides great hockey, fans can once again expect plenty of special events this season. In November, the team held a Hockey Fights Cancer Night, a cancer awareness event that replaced Pink in the Rink. Autism Awareness Night is Saturday, Jan. 26, and Dino Night, featuring a Jane the dinosaur bobblehead, is Saturday, March 16. The IceHogs are also helping the Greg Lindmark Foundation with the always popular jersey auction on Sunday, March 31. The jersey auction has helped the IceHogs raise more than $1 million that benefits local nonprofit charity organizations in the Rockford area.
There will be other giveaways throughout the season, and the team has rolled out a new app to enhance the in-game fan experience. The IceHogs have also added a new technology corner in the lobby of the BMO Harris Bank Center, home to the team. Fans will put on a headset and experience different aspects of a virtual hockey game, including shooting a puck, skating on the ice, participating in pregame introductions and listening to singer Jim Cornelison belt out the national anthem.
And season tickets are still available, starting as low as $105 for a 7-game mini pack – where you can pick the seats you want to the games you want to attend. Individual game tickets are $10.
Away from the arena, the IceHogs spend time spreading good will in the community. Players, coaches, front office members and mascots, including Hammy the Hog, make nearly 200 community appearances at schools, hospitals and other organizations.
For two decades, Rockford and their beloved IceHogs have clicked, and there are no signs of those good feelings going away.
“Small towns like Rockford are very loyal to their teams,” says coach Derek King. “It’s great to look around and see IceHogs or Blackhawks jerseys throughout the building. The people in Rockford turn out for their team. It’s good to see.”
The players appreciate the support as well.
“It’s fantastic to see the same people around the rink year after year,” Sikura says. “This is nothing but a first-class organization, and Rockford is a special place to play.”