The Chicago Hitmen may be an expansion team in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) this season, but don’t expect the team to show any typical first-year jitters.
After all, with coach Steve Pronger guiding the squad, the Hitmen already have an advantage on most other NAHL teams - at least in Pronger’s eyes.
“I think I can be that guy to bring an aggressive style to the organization," said Pronger. "We won’t be a dirty team, but I can tell you that the Chicago Hitmen will be very difficult to play against.”
Another advantage the Hitmen will have is the way the organization is tiered. There will be the NAHL Hitmen, a Tier III Junior A team in the Central States Hockey League (CSHL) and a Junior B outfit in the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League (GLJHL). Players will no doubt move about through the organizational ladder with the ultimate goal being a member of the NAHL squad.
“It’s a very big thing to have a development system - a farm system, if you will - within our organization,” said Pronger. “Chicago is a big area and a big market and there are a lot of quality players in the entire state of Illinois who all want to get to the NAHL. Whether they start in the Great Lakes League or the Central States League or even with the big club, we see it all to our advantage. Why should we go across the country and scout these kids when we already have them in our system?
“We believe in getting these kids playing some level of junior hockey as soon as possible and we believe we can provide that opportunity.”
A Windsor, Ontario, native, Pronger was the head coach of the minor professional Chicago Blaze of the All American Hockey League (AAHL) last season and prior to that was a coach with the Flint Generals of the International Hockey League (IHL).
Pronger said he’s a mixture of the quiet coach and the intense coach. He said with all of his experience, he’s learned how to balance the two.
“Players need to know how to respond to the calmness with confidence, but, I think at times, we as coaches do need to be motivators and turn up the volume,” Pronger explained. “I can be both of these guys and I’ve learned to coach and play the other teams with respect and dignity.
“Our goal here is to win games and move players to the NCAA; it’s quite simple. I’ve coached men and now I’ll be coaching kids. One adjustment I know I’ll have to make this season is dealing with players’ parents and families. I’m used to coaching older players and that player is all I dealt with. It’ll be fine, though. I think I have the ability to communicate with these kids and can be an asset.”
And before anyone else asks: No, Pronger is not related to Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger.
“We’re not related, but I get asked that all the time,” laughed Pronger. “All we have in common is that we’re both from Canada and share a common passion in the game of hockey.”
Looking ahead, Pronger can’t wait to get the final Hitmen roster intact and to see what happens on the ice once all NAHL teams head to Blaine, Minn., for the season-opening Showcase Tournament in mid-September.
“We’ll have a roster of about 22 or 23 for three weeks in August where we’ll evaluate them in practice and then our two exhibition games,” noted Pronger. “Blaine will be a very important period for us. Not only will the event be crowded with NCAA scouts, but we’ll have time to see all the top Midget teams play (in the North American Prospects Hockey League and in the At-Large division) and to scout guys who will be able to play next year or get called up this year.
“It’s a big week for us, for sure.”