This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 is here.
Hockey season is drawing close. In less than two months, the Indy Fuel will take the ice for the team’s first ECHL training camp.
That will be the culmination of a long period of team-building that officially began last November, when the Fuel were introduced to the city. On the ice, the team-building has ramped up this spring — beginning with the announcement of the Fuel’s affiliation with the NHL Chicago Blackhawks and AHL Rockford IceHogs. It has continued with the hiring of coach and VP of Hockey Operations Scott Hillman in May.
So far, Hillman has built a roster of 10 players who have been announced — half of the 20 allowed on an ECHL active roster. The Blackhawks & IceHogs are expected to provide another six-to-eight players, who will be likely determined and assigned after the teams’ training camps, which begin in September. Earlier this week, Coach Hillman chatted with me on the team’s summer progress.
This conversation will be posted in two parts. Today’s conversation covers a variety of topics — the Blackhawks affiliation, team-building and more. Tomorrow’s conversation will look more at the roster and building the team.
We’re halfway through the summer. What are your impressions of how you’ve been able to build the team?
We’re obviously really excited with where we are. We have a lot of work to do. We’re chasing a lot of players right now. The guys we’ve signed, we’ve tried to focus on building a core of very young players that we’ve scouted over the past couple of seasons, monitored their progress. They will be guys that can make an impact at this level, even as first and second-year players. We wanted to build that foundation of guys that are very hungry and guys that can play at the American Hockey League level & beyond.
Looking at the roster, the first thing that comes to mind is “these are high-character players.” They’re Academic All-Conference players, team Unsung Hero award winners and have reputations of being very good in the locker room. How important is finding guys with good character in building a team?
That’s certainly always been what I’ve strived to do and strived to build as a coach. We have a responsibility to the community that we’re in to select the very best possible role models, as well as guys we believe in as great hockey players. Here, that focus is elevated, dealing with such a close affiliation with the Blackhawks. They will certainly play a big role both hands-on, watching our players, looking to see development of these players. We need guys that are totally bought in.
Speaking of the Blackhawks, describe that relationship from this summer.
Going back a few weeks ago, I spent the entire week with the (the Blackhawks) staff on ice at development camp. That was a great intro to the way they do things and conduct themselves and treat their players and the level of professionalism they expect from their players. We will certainly look to echo all of those things here in Indianapolis. In the middle of September, I’ll be heading to the rookie tournament in London, Ontario. There will certainly be a number of faces there we’re watching very closely, a number of guys we speculate could end up here or a number of free agents we’re chasing. All those opportunities are great in my learning process. We know they’re focused on development. We certainly extend their hand in that development. We look at that as a big responsibility, having guys for Rockford to draw on immediately, and eventually, for Chicago to draw on.
Having been a coach — albeit in a different sport — I always enjoyed the opportunity to observe other coaches and try to learn new things. How invaluable is it to be able to spend a week on-ice with a staff that has not just been at the highest level, but one that has won two Stanley Cups?
It’s certainly invaluable. It’s amazing the experience I can gain through that. That will benefit our players even more. Everybody is excited about this relationship. They’re excited to have us as well to be with them. We are really amped up about the start to this young relationship. The knowledge that can be gained, for me — I’m just a sponge. I want to hear from everyone I interact with. I’m trying to pick their brains on all areas. These camps I’m able to participate in with the organization are a huge benefit.
With the recent announcement of the TV and radio deals (with WRTV/HTSN and WXNT), how nice is it to have their partnership to promote the team?
To have all of our home games televised and all 72 games on the games on a great radio station is spectacular. We just want to spread the knowledge of this game and introduce as may people and as many young people to the game we grew up loving. All of the avenues the organizations is carrying out will be outstanding.
Training camp is only a few weeks away. How excited are you to see this team take the ice?
For me, as training camp approaches, training camp is the most exciting time of year outside of playoffs. It typically represents about five, six months of a lot of work behind the scenes. It represents a lot of experiences in trying to make myself better as well as the players. We’re really excited to count down these days. It’s going to be a bit of a bounce-around year with the rookie tournament, the Blackhawks and Rockford’s camp. The players are excited. Some of our players are getting interest from the highest levels. Guys could be going through any number of paths. Some guys will be at NHL camps, main camps, AHL camps, and throughout the hockey world. Everyone is really ramped up. The staff is really ramped up. With the State Fair going on here, we get a lot of action, a lot of people coming to our office. A lot of people are stopping by the merchandise store. A lot of people are excited about the return of pro hockey.