Photo by Todd Reicher
Rockford, Ill. -- After a long summer, the promise of another hockey season offers a clean slate for the Rockford IceHogs. With a new coach and several new faces on the ice, this year’s squad sets out with high expectations and a refreshed focus.
New Head Coach, Jeremy Colliton, is at the forefront of the IceHogs’ new approach.
“We want to play a high-pressure game, we want to hold the puck as much as possible and play in the offensive zone. It’s a tough way to play, it’s hard work, but it’s fun because you always have the puck,” he said.
While Colliton’s style of play will be an adjustment for many players, he says that the team’s ability to think and act quickly will be a strong asset.
“When you have guys with speed, it opens up a lot of things. You’re maybe able to take a half-step wrong one way or the other because you’re going to fly back and make up for it. That allows you to really pressure the puck and create turnovers, and you can create offense from turnovers,” said Colliton.
The IceHogs’ speed will be a large part of their identity, but Colliton wants to ensure his players understand that offensive rushes and chances only come from defense getting priority.
“We’ve got skilled players who want to make plays, but you’ve got to work away from the puck to put yourself in those situations. If you don’t work away from the puck in your own defensive zone, the skill doesn’t matter,” he said.
Much of the team’s speed will come from young players who are joining the team for the first time. These players have contributed to the excitement surrounding the team and are doing the right things to build a successful season.
“I like the youth. They’re very coachable and they want to get better. You see guys out there for a half hour after practice; those are fun guys to work with,” said Colliton, “The results on the ice will follow when you have the work ethic as it looks like they do.”
With so many young players on the roster, returning players Ville Pokka, the only IceHogs player to dress for each game over the past two seasons, and Vinnie Hinostroza, who played in 49 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season, will be heavily relied upon as leaders on and off the ice this season.
“Vinnie is a dynamic offensive player; he’s got a ton of speed and he’s got some skill. He should help us produce offense. We want him to work away from the puck, we want him to be relentless on the forecheck and the backcheck, and with his speed he can make a lot of things happen,” said Colliton.
“And Ville has been around now a few years; he’s got an excellent stick, he’s dependable defensively, and he can make plays too. We’ll expect a strong, stable two-way game from him.”
The two standouts embrace their roles as leaders.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys here…I was in their shoes two or three years ago, so I want to try to help them out as much as I can,” said Hinostroza, “there will be a lot of ups and downs, so come every day trying to get better and work hard, and you’ll have as much success as you want.”
“I try to be an example on and off the ice every day. It’s my fourth year here, so I know how the system goes,” echoed Pokka.
Coaching at the American Hockey League level is a new challenge for Colliton, whose playing days often saw him jumping between the American and National Hockey Leagues, a scenario understood by players on the brink of playing in the NHL like Pokka and Hinostroza, who have taken a liking to the former New York Islander.
“He’s calm. He’s played the game, he knows the game, and he’s been in our situation playing between the AHL and NHL so
I think he’s a good coach for us,” said defenseman Ville Pokka.
Hinostroza mirrors his teammate’s sentiments, noting Colliton’s approachability as one of his best traits.
And while wins and losses are important statistics, Colliton emphasizes the developmental aspect of coaching an AHL team
as being a true marker of success at this level.
“I want to see a lot of guys take another step in their development. We’ve got some first year professionals getting their feet wet in the League…I’d like to see those guys become everyday solid players. For the guys who have been around for a little bit, I want to see if they can break through and help an NHL club, preferably the Blackhawks. I think if that happens, we’ll have success in the win/loss area also,” said Colliton.
Rockford’s players share their coach’s focus, and understand the correlation between team success at the AHL level and a chance at living their NHL dreams. Even new IceHogs like forward Laurent Dauphin, who played 30 NHL games for the Arizona Coyotes over the past two years, have adopted a similar mindset.
“One goes with the other. If you play good here, you might go up, but if you don’t play good here, you’re not going to go up. The only mindset you can have is to be a good player here and see what happens,” said Dauphin.
With the team’s roster now set and training camp done, it is time to drop the puck, and not a minute too soon, according to Colliton.
“I’m sure all the guys are anxious to play. September’s a long month,” said Colliton.
“It’s going to be fun to go hit someone else.”
Next Home Game: The Rockford IceHogs return to action at the BMO Harris Bank Center for the 2017-18 Home Opener on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 6 p.m. The Hogs will take on the Iowa Wild and the first 4,000 fans in attendance will receive a free IceHogs calendar, courtesy of Impact Networking. Tickets can be purchased at IceHogs.com, by calling (815) 968-5222 or in-person at the BMO Harris Bank Center Box Office.