A triumphant gust blew through the Windy City last Saturday at West Meadows Ice Arena, as the Chicago Hitmen celebrated the team’s first-ever North American Hockey League (NAHL) victory with an 8-5 triumph over North Division rival Motor City.
Cody Damon forged another program-first in the conquest, recording the initial hat trick in club lore en route to a four-goal outing - including the game-clincher 5:09 into the third period. Two Hitmen - Joe Sposit and James Albrecht - notched playmakers (three assists) with Sposit pitching in with the game’s opening salvo.
“The initial win was very satisfying for us,” said Chicago head coach Steve Pronger. “Of course, we’d hoped it would have come a little sooner, but we’re definitely progressing and playing better as the season goes on.”
The expansion club nearly secured its landmark win on Friday, storming back from a 3-1 third-period deficit to the Metal Jackets to force overtime before succumbing in the extra frame. Sposit (two goals) and Albrecht (two assists) led the charge for Chicago, which earned its first-ever point that night.
Albrecht is now tied for third among all NAHL skaters with seven assists, and is eighth overall with 10 points. Louis Educate is 12th in scoring (eight points), while Damon’s five goals are tied for seventh in the league. Damon was named the North Player of the Week for his efforts.
“Joe Sposit and Jimmy Albrecht are a couple of our 1990s, both 20, and neither came in with North American (Hockey) League experience,” Pronger explained. “But they did have junior-level experience, and we’ve certainly been leaning on these guys. Damon’s a ’91 and he has some Junior B experience, but we think he’s got everything to develop into a player who can compete and succeed in the NAHL.”
Pronger and his Hitmen jumped into the NAHL schedule with both feet, lacing ‘em up seven times in nine days to start the season, and nine times over the first 15 days.
“Early on, we were still getting used to the pace and the style of play in the North American Hockey League,” Pronger offered. “We’re just starting to come out of our shells.”
The Hitmen organization might be new to the NAHL, but already has teams in the Junior A Central States Hockey League and Junior B Great Lakes Hockey League. Pronger says the progression to the NAHL was a natural one.
“Having a tiered system in an organization is beneficial,” explained Pronger, who has had previous coaching stints with pro clubs in Flint (IHL), Chicago (AAHL) and the University of Windsor, among others. “When (team owner) Mark Hammersmith put this team up - the North American League team - as the organization’s flagship, it was done in the hopes that we could attract young men 16 and up who would see that as something to strive for, to reach on their way to college hockey.”
The Hitmen boasts one of the largest markets in the NAHL - the Chicago metropolitan area has a population of nearly 10 million people.
“The market we’re in is advantageous because if you look at the number of kids playing AAA and youth hockey in the area, we have a large group that can look to our team as a place they can get to as a player. They pay attention to what’s going on and hopefully make one of their goals to reach this level.”
Expansion club or otherwise, Pronger and his squad share the same team goals as the other 25 organizations that comprise the league.
“We go into each and every game expecting to win,” he concluded. “Our goal in that regard is that we continue to win and compete every night.
“For a first-year club, a realistic expectation is to be one of the four teams out of eight in the North Division to earn a playoff spot. If we get there, then we look at the other three teams and try to figure out how we can advance through to the Robertson Cup. That would be a pretty great feat for a first-year team. That’s why we have to expect to win each time we take the ice.”
The Hitmen will vie for their first win streak this weekend, visiting North rival Port Huron for a two-game series at McMorran Arena.
JANESVILLE JETS: The Jets played a pair of nail-biters over the weekend against Coulee Region, dropping a narrow 2-1 overtime contest on Friday before going to a shootout on Saturday. Connor McBride provided some late-game heroics on Friday, when his even-strength marker with 2:58 left in regulation forced the extra stanza. McBride bagged another goal in the back end of the series as well.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: Tyler Perpich churned out four points over the weekend for the Warriors as the club celebrated its inaugural home-opener, plus a couple of return affairs against Springfield. The Novi, Mich., native drew an assist in Friday’s home-opener, struck for his third goal of the season on Saturday, and capped the three-game set with one of each in Sunday’s finale.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Wyandotte, Mich., native Cody Wydo carried his hot streak from the NAHL Showcase into the regular season for the Jackets, and now has seven points in his last four games. Wydo is plus-5 over that span, and Motor City is 3-1 during his spurt.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: The first-year Falcons are making preparations for their own inaugural home opener this weekend, welcoming Chicago into McMorran Arena for a pair of games. Port Huron will settle into its new digs over a protracted homestand that spans six games over three weekends. Adam Frank leads the Fighting Falcons at a point-a-game clip (four points in four games).
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: It was an interdivisional heavyweight series at the Hardee’s Iceplex over the weekend, with the Bandits splitting the set with former division foe Topeka. St. Louis got a pair of goals from Evan Stibbard and 24 saves from Ian O’Brien on Friday in a 5-1 victory. Ryan Stouffer has been the model of consistency, recording a goal in each of his past five outings.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: The Stars took a respite from NAHL action over the weekend for a pair of exhibition contests against the U.S. National Team Development Program’s 17U club in Ann Arbor, Mich., dropping a 7-4 decision on Friday and a 5-4 setback on Saturday.