03/18/2012 2:13 PM - Since the Rockford IceHogs took to the BMO Harris Bank Center ice for the first game of the season on Oct. 8, their roster has changed drastically. Injuries, call-ups and trades have all impacted the lineup in the last five months, but defenseman Brian Fahey has been one constant in the locker room all season.
The 31-year-old veteran has been a leader from the start. Fahey shared alternate captain duties with former IceHogs forward Brett McLean for the first half of the season, wearing the “A” during home games while McLean donned the letter on the road. When McLean decided to leave the organization in January to play in Switzerland, Fahey was given the “A” full-time.
After second alternate Brian Connelly and captain Brandon Segal were traded to the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively, it opened the door for different players to seize those roles.
When IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent asked Fahey if he would be willing to serve as the new IceHogs captain, the defenseman already had a pretty good idea how his teammates would respond.
“I told [Dent] that whether or not I was named the “C,” there’s leadership in the locker room,” said Fahey. “There’s a natural kind of progression to that and guys step up at different times to take that role.
“I told him that it’s your decision and however it goes, it’s going to be fine. It’s not going to change the way the locker room works right now.”
Fahey earned the “C” through hard work and dedication. He endured the ups and downs that most young players go through, grinding through the rough patches early in his career, and now finds himself a veteran leader on a young team looking to make a late push for the postseason.
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STILL A YOUNG GUY AT HEART
On Jan. 22, Fahey played in his 600th professional game as the IceHogs earned a 2-1 win over the Milwaukee Admirals at the BMO Harris Bank Center. The Glenview, Ill. native has skated in the ECHL, American Hockey League and National Hockey League in nine professional seasons, scoring nearly 250 points. Despite his success, the d-man doesn’t feel like a veteran.
“I still feel like the young guy trying to make it,” Fahey said. “I know on this team I’m the second oldest guy here besides [Wade Brookbank]. I’ve never had that experience before where I’m kind of the older guy. I’ve always been on older teams, so this is kind of a new experience for me.”
But Fahey has experienced the rough ride that many first and second-year skaters endure.
Drafted in the fourth round (119th overall) by the Colorado Avalanche in 2000, he played four seasons at the University of Wisconsin before starting his professional career with the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies of the ECHL, where he spent the majority of his rookie campaign.
The next season, Fahey anticipated getting the chance to prove himself in the AHL with the Worcester IceCats (now the Sharks), Atlantic City’s affiliate. But the NHL lockout started that September, and the second-year skater saw his window of opportunity shrink.
“That lockout year, that was the year when I really felt I belonged in the American League, and I wasn’t,” said Fahey. “I was kind of pushed down because guys from the NHL were coming down.”
Fahey played in 20 games with Worcester that season, garnering four helpers. But the d-man spent most of his time with Atlantic City, tallying 26 points (10g-16a) in 46 contests. Looking back, the Illinois native realizes that his time spent in the ECHL benefited his game in the long run.
“I think it reinforced the drive in me to keep pushing, but also gave me a lot of confidence,” Fahey noted. “One thing that I really took from the East Coast Hockey League was that there were things to my game that were missing, and I was able to really improve them in that league and get a lot of ice time, whereas in the American League at the time, I wasn’t playing very much.”
All hockey players want to perform at the highest level possible, but moving through the ranks often means spending time in the lower leagues.
Fahey understands the struggle. He went through it. As an established player, the defenseman can act as a sounding board for the new guys who are still trying to learn the business side of the game.
“They found out that, hey, this is the way things work. You’re not going to get an explanation as to why things are, or who’s called up,” said Fahey. “The biggest thing that I tell guys is you have to just keep going, no matter what, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I think what I can bring to the locker room, especially, is just a sense that you’ve got to keep going and keep striving and you’ll get your opportunity. It’ll come and you have to be ready for it.”
After paying his dues in the ECHL, Fahey found success at the AHL level, including winning a championship with the Chicago Wolves in 2008. The 31-year-old earned his first NHL recall last season, playing in seven games with the Washington Capitals and recording an assist during his time with the big club.
Through his nine seasons in professional hockey, the defenseman has learned how he can contribute in any given game.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things going through all of the levels is knowing my role and knowing what I bring to the table for the team in different situations every night.”
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Having a letter on his jersey, whether it’s an “A” or a “C,” hasn’t changed the way Fahey prepares or plays. Even with the rotating roster and losing players who had big roles on the team, the defenseman has stuck to his game.
Dent knows exactly what to expect from his newest captain.
“He’s been a warrior for us all year. He comes to the rink every day, he’s professional in his approach, he works hard,” Dent said. “He leaves it on the ice every night, everything he has, and I respect that a lot.
“He’s a guy that works hard every day and helps the young guys and has been a big part of the team this year.”
Being a captain means more than just wearing a “C.” Unlike in many sports where the title of captain is simply a formality, the role in hockey comes with added responsibility, and often added pressure to perform and lead the team through the ups and downs of a 76-game season.
The IceHogs have one of the youngest rosters in the AHL, both in age and experience. Captain or not, Fahey knows that his veteran status means he has more influence in the locker room.
“I think whenever there’s a younger crowd there’s definitely a little more responsibility on the older guys,” said Fahey. “It’s just kind of a matter of keeping things in perspective and keeping guys on task.”
Since October, the IceHogs lineup has undergone major changes. Roster roulette is nothing new to Fahey, but he realizes that many first or even second-year skaters coming from college or juniors are not used to the constant adjustments.
The team’s goal, however, is still the same.
“We’ve got to find ways to win no matter what, no matter who’s in the lineup, no matter who’s called up from Rockford to Chicago or who’s called up on our team from Toledo. We have to find a way to win with the core group of guys in this room,” Fahey said.
Several of those core players are getting the opportunity to step up and become leaders. When Fahey became team captain, forward Rostislav Olesz and defenseman Ryan Stanton were named alternates. Olesz has nearly seven seasons under his belt, including six in the NHL, and is one of Rockford’s top point producers. Stanton, like Fahey, is a stay-at-home defenseman who has been a steady presence on the blue line all season.
The new captain has also found that leadership extends beyond those who are wearing letters.
“We go in the locker room and guys step up whether they have a “C” or an “A” on their jersey [or not],” Fahey said.
Fahey exemplifies leadership every time he steps on the ice. The six-foot, one-inch, 215-pound skater is a defenseman through and through, but Coach Dent also knows there’s an offensive aspect to Fahey’s game that makes him a well-rounded player.
“He has a really heavy shot. We talk about getting shots through on the power play, 4-on-3 and 5-on-3, so we put him in those situations,” Dent said.
“He doesn’t mess around in the offensive zone. He’s not looking for pretty plays, and that’s one thing we like about him as a group. He shoots the puck whenever he gets the chance, which gives the forwards an opportunity for a deflection or tip or rebound at the net.”
A strong work ethic helped Fahey find success as a professional hockey player. That drive also pushed him through college, where he not only played hockey, but also earned a degree.
Choosing where to go to college can be a daunting decision. For prospective student athletes, the choice can be especially difficult. Fahey looked at several universities across the country, but only the University of Wisconsin offered everything he wanted regarding both hockey and education.
“I looked at a lot of other places and nothing brought the complete package that I was looking for,” Fahey said.
“Wisconsin has a history of putting guys in the pro leagues, and I thought if this is what I want to do, along with getting a great education, that this was the best situation for me.”
Through four seasons with the Badgers, Fahey played in 156 contests, registering 14g-28a-42pts. The summer after his freshman year, the Illinois native was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche. Before he made the jump to the professional game, though, Fahey soaked up life as a student athlete.
“It’s a great hockey program,” said Fahey. “You play in front of 14-15,000 fans every game. To be part of a large university like that, that has great education and just a great fan base and student body was a neat experience.
“I think anyone that’s been up to Madison and been part of the university on a game day for hockey, and seeing the crowd all dressed in red and the band playing, you understand why it’s one of the unique hockey experiences around.”
While Fahey spent a lot of time focusing on hockey, he didn’t slack off in the classroom. It has been several years since he graduated, and looking back, the d-man doesn’t regret putting in the effort both on and off the ice.
“It’s a tough schedule, going to class all day, and practices are longer. Getting all your work done was a chore sometimes,” Fahey said. “But I’m glad I did it. I didn’t shy away from hard classes and I really value the education I got there. I’m happy I have my degree in economics and hopefully I’ll get a chance to use it one day.”
EARNING A RING
Another reason Fahey enjoyed playing at Wisconsin was the easy drive home. But it was in 2006 that the Illinois native found himself with the chance to literally play in his own backyard.
From 2006 to 2008, Fahey played for the Chicago Wolves. The Allstate Arena in Rosemont is just 27 minutes from the defenseman’s hometown of Glenview. After spending most of his early pro career on the east coast, Fahey welcomed the opportunity to be a full-time Illinois resident again.
“To live at home and play in front of your friends and family all the time and to be part of an organization that has a large following in the community is pretty cool,” Fahey said.
Part of being a professional athlete is moving from place to place. It comes with the territory, especially in the minors. Many hockey players find temporary living arrangements from September to April and then move back to their hometowns in the offseason.
After signing with Rockford for the 2011-12 season, Fahey, who keeps a permanent residence in the Chicago area, was happy that he didn’t have to start packing.
“Anybody would want to live at home and not have to uproot their life for the season,” Fahey said. “It’s really a special thing. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve really enjoyed playing here in Rockford. My family, my wife is here. We didn’t have to move. I can just concentrate on hockey and my life.”
What made his time with the Wolves so special, though, was winning the Calder Cup in 2008. Chicago finished the 2007-08 regular season first in the Western Conference with a record of 53-22-2-3. Fahey posted the best numbers of his AHL career that season, recording 37 points (14g-23a) in 76 games. He then added 10 points (2g-8a) in 24 playoff contests en route to winning the title.
“Anytime you’re on a championship team it’s a unique experience. Some of my best friends are from that team,” said Fahey. “The chemistry that you develop with the guys on that team and the way you play and gain confidence from a team like that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Chicago took a 4-2 series victory over the Milwaukee Admirals in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, but Fahey and the Wolves nearly fell in the next round to the defenseman’s current team—the Rockford IceHogs.
“The series we had with Rockford that season was probably the best hockey rivalry I’ve ever been a part of,” Fahey noted. “Our seven-game series in the second round was absolutely epic. It was bitter. The teams hated each other, and it was a lot of fun. That was probably the best hockey experience I’ve had yet.
“That was the championship, that second round. That’s why you never know what can happen in the playoffs.”
Chicago went on to beat Toronto in the semi-finals and then claimed the Calder Cup after defeating the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in six games in the Finals.
Though it’s been four years since Fahey played for the Wolves, he still recognizes many of the management and staff in Chicago and still enjoys playing in the arena where he had so much success.
But as a member of the IceHogs, playing on the other side of the Chicago-Rockford rivalry has been a unique experience for Fahey.
“It’s funny being on the other side because the rivalry is still there, and it’s still heated,” said Fahey.
IceHogs fans need not worry where the defenseman’s loyalties lie, though.
“It’s one of those things where I’m not a big fan of the guys on the Wolves right now,” Fahey said.
“Once the puck drops, you’re in the heat of the moment and these are your guys. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Chicago Wolves, but when I’m playing against them there’s no real love there for the day.”
Fahey knows what it takes to win a championship, and now, as captain of the IceHogs, the defenseman can utilize his experience and work ethic to help Rockford make a run for the postseason.
No matter the outcome, Fahey is enjoying his time as a professional hockey player. And while he can use that economics degree to one day start a second career, he plans on sticking with the sport he loves for as long as possible.
“It’s been a lot of fun for me,” Fahey said. “I’ve really enjoyed playing hockey for a career. I’ve been really blessed to play this long and stay this healthy, and I hope I can keep it going and still get those opportunities.”