By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
It was a difficult learning experience for the Chicago Hitmen last season, who entered the NAHL as one of several expansion teams in 2010-11. On the bright side, it was the first time since the 2002-03 season that the league returned to the Chicago area (Chicago Freeze played in the NAHL from 1997-2003). The Hitmen played their inaugural home game in front of 1,400 strong in a close loss to the Janesville Jets, but ultimately the Hitmen would lose their first six games and put themselves behind the 8-ball early.
Five of the Hitmen’s nine total wins would come in the next seven games in late September and into October and gave everyone confidence that the team could have success on the ice in the NAHL. But, just four wins in the final 42 games would give the Hitmen a final regular season record of 9-45-4.
The good news for the Hitmen organization is that there literally is nowhere to go, but up. With that in mind, the Hitmen decided on a new head coach soon after the regular season ended. In step Brent Agrusa, who was no stranger to the NAHL. Agrusa served as the head coach of the Helena Bighorns from 2002-05 guiding the team to the playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the bench. Most recently, he was the head coach Kenai River Brown Bears during the 2008-09 season.
Hitmen owner and president Mark Hammersmith remarked that, “Brent’s extensive knowledge of the player pool and his experience in the NAHL is what I hope will help us be a competitive team in the future. We felt a change was needed to help us acquire the right players for next season and beyond.”
Agrusa said he was happy to be back in a familiar league, but believes it has seen plenty of change since he last coached. “I think the league has improved since I was last involved. The game involves much more skill and there are many more players with talent, so finding the right guys is what I am going to be concerned with,” said Agrusa.
As for as what Agrusa has planned for the Hitmen this season, he was clear on his message. “We are going younger,” said Agrusa. “We have to rebuild the team to include the right kind of player. I am very offensive-minded so I want guys with speed, skill and who can put the puck in the net. We also wanted to make sure they have good habits on and off the ice.”
One of the other issues for the Hitmen last season was player consistency. Chicago saw 55 different players play in a game last season, which was second to only Port Huron’s 65 players. It’s something that Agrusa wants to change right away. “I think we are striving for consistency. There was way too much player movement last season, so consistency within the roster and line-up will be big for us. Guys have to have the chance to learn from one another and we are going to give them that opportunity.”
If tryouts were any indication, the culture in Chicago has completely turned around already. Over 200 players were at the camp and that gave the organization a lot of encouragement. The talent level and atmosphere was so encouraging to Hammersmith that he even stated it “reaffirmed that Brent Agrusa is the right man for the job.”
Agrusa said Chicago will invite 31 players to training camp, which begins Friday, August 19th. It is interesting to note that only two players from last year’s Hitmen NAHL squad (Brent Formosa and Joey Haydock) were invited to training camp, clearly showing that Agrusa means business. Agrusa said he also hasn’t decided who will be between the pipes at the goaltender position this season. Eight different goalies saw action last season for the Hitmen, but the three coming to camp are all new faces. Jiri Stastny comes from the Czech Repulic, Brett Kilar played for the California Stars Midget AAA team last year and Brad Roth comes to Chicago after playing his freshman season for the Oklahoma Sooners.
It is clear change is in the air for the Chicago Hitmen, but judging by what has already transpired this summer, it appears the Hitmen are already headed in the right direction. There is no doubt Chicago will have their hands full with the newly created Midwest Division with the likes of Coulee Region, Janesville, Springfield and St. Louis, but it is clear they will improve and be more consistent in 2011-12.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Corpus Christi Ice Rays.