Updated: October 30, 2013 9:47PM
Brandon Pirri was 19 years old when he walked into an NHL dressing room as an actual NHL player for the first time. He looked around and saw the big names — Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook — with a mix of awe and fear. Not even a lifetime of locker rooms can prepare a player for a moment so thrilling and daunting.
“I was 19,” said Pirri, whose one game that year — the 2010-11 season — happened to be the night those players raised a banner commemorating their Stanley Cup championship. “It was a little nerve-wracking.”
Brandon Saad called his early days in the Blackhawks’ dressing room “unnerving.” Ben Smith said they were “surreal.” Jeremy Morin deemed them “strange.”
Now? They all call it home. And while the influx of young, relatively inexperienced players has caused some growing pains for the Hawks as they defend another Stanley Cup, it also has injected some energy and some hunger into a highly accomplished, veteran room.
Pirri (22), Morin (22) and Smith (25) — along with Joakim Nordstrom (21) and Jimmy Hayes (23) earlier in the season — have had cups of coffee with the Hawks. Each is now getting (or has gotten) a chance this season to become permanent NHL players. And their enthusiasm can rub off on those who’ve been around awhile.
“Those are guys that are eager to prove themselves,” said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, barely two months older than Smith but with 462 more NHL games to his credit. “That always helps your team when you have a guy who’s playing hungry and who wants to earn ice time and earn more of a role on this team. When you have guys playing with that motivation, it always helps.”
Hawks general manager Stan Bowman jettisoned veterans such as Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo largely because he wanted to get the next generation out of Rockford and in Chicago. He said he wanted to “keep the cycle going,” touting the benefit of youth and the inherent risk of inertia.
The downside is these players still are finding their way, and the learning curve at the NHL level is steep. But the Hawks believe the upside is worth it. And with Pirri looking solid in two games at second-line center and Morin appearing to be a nice fit in Stalberg’s old role at third-line right wing, the more tangible benefits are starting to appear.
“They bring balance to our team,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “That youthful energy … the older guys can get some excitement off that, as well. There’s definitely a learning curve, but we feel their energy is something we could always use.”
The young players benefit from the mini-youth movement, too. While Saad was the only rookie on the squad last year, the so-called Rockford guys have some safety in numbers as they try to break themselves in. Plus, they’ve played alongside more established players such as Saad and Andrew Shaw in Rockford in recent years, including during the lockout last year.
“It’s actually a little better recently because I know some of the younger guys,” Morin said. “I played with them in Rockford, so it’s a little more comfortable. And obviously, everybody’s pretty nice and easy to get along with.”
Or as Saad put it, “Hockey players are hockey players.”
And regardless of age or experience, they’re all on the same mission.
“From guys that have won two Cups to guys that have no Cups, everyone in this locker room wants to win every night and treats it like a do-or-die situation,” Pirri said. “I don’t think there’s a lack of hunger in here, no matter what you’ve done.”