After eight years at a different and lower Junior A level, one of the newest entries in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), the Chicago Hitmen, have learned a lot this season.
Despite taking its lumps in Year 1 in the always-difficult North Division, the Hitmen still has plenty of optimism when it comes to the remainder of this season and the future.
“It was an eye-opener for me, personally,” said Hitmen owner and governor Mark Hammersmith. “The amount of support and energy we got from the NAHL was fantastic. They really give every one of our teams a chance to succeed from a business perspective and the talent level of the players is extremely good.”
The Hitmen is strategically located right in the heart of the North Division -something Hammersmith says was one of the keys to his first-year success.
“The footprint is perfect for our team,” he said. “We play in a division that has players with a lot of speed and skill and in close proximity to many of the NCAA Division I hockey programs. I think the footprint is one of the reasons why I, as an owner, am able to make it work from a business perspective. Our longest road trip is just 6-7 hours away, which is great. It’s a tremendous benefit for me as an owner and our players.”
Coming out of the gate, the Hitmen took its lumps, losing its first eight games, but, once acclimated to the league and the style of play, Chicago got it together and started winning.
“We have the capability to win any game at any time,” said head coach Steve Pronger. “Throughout the season, we’ve lacked in consistency, but never in our effort and desire to win. We experienced a lot of changes, but our roster as it is right now gives us reason to believe we can be competitive the remainder of the season and have a good group of players for next season.”
“We realized as the season went on that the core of your team are the veteran players - guys with experience and guys that have been through the grind,” said Hammersmith. “The best teams in our division all have these types of players and you begin to understand why they’re successful from year to year. We hope to emulate that for next season.”
Current Hitmen players Vincent Somma, Thomas Coy and Joe Graveline provide an example of those players that Hammersmith and Pronger are talking about - active players who not only had an impact with the team this year, but will have the potential to have an impact next season.
“Towards the later half of this season, we really tried to load up on players we hope will be with us next season and better because of the experience they went through this season,” said Hammersmith.
Chicago’s tenders also give them reason to be optimistic for next season. One of those is Hunter Long, who played for the Indiana Jr. Ice’s 18U team this season in the North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL). Another is Illinois native Alec DeAngelo, who plays for Team Illinois’ 18U squad.
“We’re excited about Alec, Hunter and the rest of our tenders because we think they’ll have an impact on our immediate future with the ability to help us out right away next season,” said Pronger.
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
JANESVILLE JETS: Led by University of Denver recruit and NAHL North Division Player of the Week Larkin Jacobson, the Janesville Jets split a weekend home series with the Springfield Jr. Blues. On Friday, behind Jacobson’s two goals, the Jets won 4-1. Forward Ross Mauermann had a goal and assist in the win. Mauermann added another goal on Saturday, as did Chris Cattivera, but it wasn’t enough in a 3-2 loss to the visiting Jr. Blues. However, the Jets ended up with the regular-season series edge against Springfield with a 4-3-0 record. This weekend the Jets, who statistically have the league’s best home record, will host the Port Huron Fighting Falcons for two games on Friday and Saturday.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: With a weekend split, the Warriors stayed tied for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division with 59 points. On Wednesday, the Warriors fell at home to the Traverse City North Stars, 5-2. It was just the second time all season that goalie Robert Tadazak had allowed five goals in a game. A.J. White and Andrew Kolb scored for Michigan in the loss, which was its third in a row. However, two nights later, the Warriors rebounded for a 4-1 win over Motor City. Tadazak rebounded to stop 40 of 41 shots, defenseman Kevin Gibson had a career-high three assists and forward Scott Henegar had a goal and an assist. The Warriors face perhaps their biggest series of the year this weekend as they face third-place Traverse City once at home and twice on the road.
MOTOR CITY METAL JACKETS: Despite losing two of three games last weekend, the Metal Jackets managed to remain in a tie with Michigan for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division. Motor City fell to the Warriors 4-1 on Friday with Jonathan Smith tallying the only goal. The Metal Jackets turned it around on Saturday with a convincing 5-1 win at Traverse City. The league’s leading-scorer Cody Wydo had a goal and an assist and Drew Slaton scored the game-winner. Jimmy Hamby made 30 saves for his 14th win of the season. On Sunday, another goal from Wydo and Andrew Graves weren’t enough in a close 3-2 loss against the North Stars. All 10 of Motor City’s remaining games are against Springfield or Traverse City beginning on March 11 with three games against the Jr. Blues in Springfield.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: Port Huron continues to improve by taking three of four points on the road last weekend in Chicago against the Hitmen. On Friday, goaltender Peter Megariotis stopped all 22 shots for the first shutout in Fighting Falcons history as they topped Chicago, 4-0. Derek McPherson scored the eventual game-winner just 39 seconds into the game and Ian Miller, Frank Harrison and Mattia Bortolotto also had goals. On Saturday, despite a 47-23 shot advantage, Port Huron fell 4-3 in overtime to Chicago. Led by James Rudi Pino’s goal and assist, the Fighting Falcons had a two-goal lead heading into the third period before Chicago’s comeback. Port Huron faces a tough task this weekend as it travels to take on the league’s best home team, the Janesville Jets, on Friday and Saturday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: The Jr. Blues won two of their three games last weekend, including a split at Janesville, the team with the league’s best home record. Kyle Cook scored the only goal in a 4-1 loss on Friday at Janesville, but on Saturday the Jr. Blues rebounded for a 3-2 win thanks to a third-period goal from Gavin Tufte. Guan Wang and Ethan Nauman also scored for the Jr. Blues in the win. On Sunday, the Jr. Blues returned home to the Nelson Center to record a 5-0 shutout win against the Chicago Hitmen. Goaltender Caleb Neal turned aside all 21 Hitmen shots for his first career NAHL shutout and Nauman and Tufte chimed in with a goal and assist each. Springfield has a week off before hosting Motor City for three games beginning onMarch 11.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: After spending the last two weekends off, the St. Louis Bandits return to action this weekend, traveling to Chicago to face the Hitmen for three games beginning on March 4. St. Louis has the league’s best penalty-kill thanks in large part to its league-low 671 penalty minutes this season. Despite the almost three-week layoff, the Bandits still hold a five-point lead over Janesville for top spot in the North Division. Goaltender Matt Green, who competed in last month’s NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, continues to lead the NAHL with a 1.95 goals-against average. Forward Brad Smith has 12 points in his last 10 games and has an amazing 11 multi-point games in his last 19. Five of the Bandits’ 10 remaining games this season are against the Hitmen. St. Louis has a 2-0-0 record against Chicago this season.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: The North Stars moved themselves into sole possession of third place in the North Division, winning two of three games last week. On Wednesday, Tim Opie and Eric Rivard both scored twice in a huge 5-2 win on the road at Michigan. Top Prospects goaltender Steve Bolton was solid between the pipes, stopping 35 of 37 shots. On Saturday, the North Stars fell at home 5-1 to Motor City with Justin Scott scoring the lone goal. On Sunday, the North Stars were able to rebound over the Metal Jackets with a 3-2 win. Kalin Ainsworth had two goals, including the game-winner, with a little more than five minutes remaining in the third period. Opie had the other marker, while Bolton against put in another good performance between the pipes. Traverse City faces a big three-game series against Michigan this weekend beginning on Friday in Flint.