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Hockey: Illiana Blackbirds already turning heads in inaugural season in Dyer

Chad Miller 19 Portage lPrairie ManitobCanaddeflects puck goal during IllianBlackbirds hockey practice Midwest Training Ice Center Dyer Ind. Tuesday March

Chad Miller, 19, of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada, deflects the puck at the goal during Illiana Blackbirds hockey practice at the Midwest Training and Ice Center in Dyer, Ind. Tuesday March 5, 2013. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 9, 2013 11:56AM



DYER — It’s becoming apparent that the Blackhawks are the gold standard of the National Hockey League.

The Illiana Blackbirds of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League have been a success in their first year of existence and hope to keep that success going tonight when they begin a weekend second-round best-of-three-series with the Wooster Oilers (6:50 puck drop at the Midwest Ice Rink in Dyer).

“The teams I was most successful on had players who were accountable to play the same way and knew what they were supposed to do,” said Illiana coach Reid Simpson, who played two seasons with the Blackhawks.

“Successful teams have interchangable parts. You can take any guy and put them in any situation and he’ll know how to function.”

The Blackbirds have indeed functioned well, not quite like the Blackhawks, but pretty good for a first-year team.

The Blackbirds finished with a 26-17 record, good for second place in the Great Lakes division, and won their first playoff series last weekend, sweeping Central Wisconsin.

And Simpson says the Blackbirds have drawn a good fan base, pulling around 500 fans per home game.

“You teach them exactly how you want them to play and then they go out and execute,” Simpson said. “And that’s what our team has been doing.”

A good example of the grit on this team is Crown Point native Nicholas Townes, who was hospitalized earlier this season and wanted to come home for his final year in juniors.

“Since he got here he has stepped up and turned up the ability of our team,” Simpson said. “That was key for us, to get some of the local players as opposed to going to New York or Minnesota or different places out east.”

The move has paid off.

Townes has only played 16 games for the Blackbirds but has 13 goals and 18 assists (the Blackbirds have lost only four times since his arrival). There are no fewer than six area-born Blackbirds contributing, including Beau Butcher from St. John, who Simpson says is a solid, physical defenseman.

“I firmly believe that in our division, we have as good a chance as any one of winning our division if we play the right way,” Simpson said. “You have to follow the game plan and execute and if we do that, I think we’ll have a chance.”



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