Reflecting on his first season-and-a-half of his professional career, Rockford IceHogs center Brandon Pirri has experienced more ups and downs than a rollercoaster.
In a 16-month stretch, Pirri’s brief career has ranged from capturing a dream he set out for when he first strapped on skates to failing to reach another life-long goal.
Halfway through his second professional season, the 20-year-old Pirri is establishing himself as one of the premier point producers in the American Hockey League.
As a 19-year-old, Pirri decided to turn to the professional game after spending one season at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Probably beyond expectation, Pirri made his pro debut with Chicago on Oct. 9, 2010 as the Blackhawks raised their Stanley Cup Championship banner from the summer before.
“It was a blast, especially with the first home game after they won the Stanly Cup,” said Pirri. “It was kind of a whirlwind. Coming into the year I just wanted to be a good player. It was my first year and a lot of 19-year-olds don’t get the opportunity to play pro hockey. I looked at it as, whether I was in the NHL or AHL, I just wanted to get comfortable, go through the growing pains that each rookie goes through and not have too many lows, too many highs and have that good consistency.”
That proved to be a good foreshadow for the coming months for Pirri. The center was sent back to Rockford following his NHL debut and the mental ups and downs began.
Tryout rosters were released in December for the World Junior Championships and Pirri’s name was listed on Team Canada’s camp. A native of Toronto, Pirri grew up dreaming of representing his country in the annual tournament, but instead had to deal with the reality of getting cut from the squad.
“Growing up in Canada, your Christmas break revolves around watching World Junior’s and it was something that I always wanted to do since I was younger,” said Pirri. “It was disappointing. I went there and I gave it my best. Sometimes you come up a little short.”
Lose the game, but don’t lose the lesson. Pirri made sure that his disappointment in not making the team didn’t prevent him from taking something away from the experience.
“I didn’t want to dwell on it. Life’s too short to be thinking about something like that. Wasting any time thinking what you could have done different because it’s over with. It’s just moving on and setting new goals and trying to reach them.”
Chicago’s second round selection (#59 overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Pirri returned to Rockford to continue his development, but struggled to get through the “dog days” of his rookie season, notching just three assists in his next 11 games.
Pirri got back on track before an injury sidelined him in late February for five games, but instead of spiraling out of site, the injury served as a turning point in a positive direction for Pirri.
“There was a lot going on for a 19-year-old to go through,” said Pirri. “I wanted to be mentally strong and the adversity helped me build some character and hopefully it will help me out in the long run.”
What the Blackhawks do here is great for the young guys and developing them into great pros. They really give them an opportunity to play. - Brandon Pirri
In the final 18 games, Pirri put up a point a game (4g-14a) and after some hard work during the summer, the center came to training camp hoping to take the next step in his development process.
“The day-to-day life as a pro is a lot different,” said Pirri. “You don’t have anyone babysitting you. It’s on you to become a better player because this is a business and if you’re not playing well, you’re not going to be here. Maturing as a person and knowing what I have to do to play my best hockey and just progress as a player.”
Young players must deal with playing three games in three nights; playing against older, established players with NHL experience; and with the business side of the game, making the transition from college or juniors to the pros all that more difficult.
Over the past two seasons, Rockford has featured one of the youngest rosters in the AHL. Pirri was one of four 19-year-olds to appear in a game with the IceHogs in 2010-11, and at the All-Star Break this season, Rockford’s roster featured nine players (including Pirri) that were either 20 or 21-years-old.
“What the Blackhawks do here is great for the young guys and developing them into great pros,” replied Pirri. “We had four 19-year-olds last year while most teams didn’t have any. They really give the young guys an opportunity to play.
“There’s no quote, unquote, vets get all the important ice time. So for a young guy, this is a great situation. We’re in every game. It’s just about maturing and each guy taking their role and making the most of it.”
Speaking of the All-Star Break, there was no break for Pirri this time around as he was chosen to play in the annual AHL All-Star Game, played this season in Atlantic City. The selection speaks volumes for the progress Pirri has made over the last calendar year.
Although he realizes there is still a lot of growth needed to be a full-time NHLer, Pirri is confident that he’s on the right path.
“I think my game has improved immensely,” said Pirri, comparing his game to a season ago. “My confidence is the biggest thing. Coming into games this year, I’m coming in to dominate the game where as last year I was a little more tentative hoping I can make a good play here and there. Where now I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a difference maker and I think my confidence is the biggest difference from last year to this year.”
That confidence has made Pirri a clutch producer for Rockford in his second season. The 20-year-old centerman leads Rockford with four game-winning goals and has netted some keys markers for the IceHogs as they surged in January.
Pirri helped the IceHogs complete a third period comeback with an overtime game-winning tally in Texas on Jan. 8 and helped Rockford overcome a 3-0 deficit in Charlotte with a late third period goal against the Checkers on Jan. 26.
“You want to be put with great players, but being judged as a great player, you need to make your teammates around you better,” said Pirri. “And that’s something that I really focused on this summer was having that confidence, wanting to be a part of a dominate line in this league, trying to control the game. Looking at it day-in and day-out, it doesn’t matter who’s on my line, I’m going into the game with the mindset that we’re going to dominate the game and be game changers.”
There still is a lot of work to be done for Pirri to be a permanent fixture in the NHL and he recognizes some of his inconsistencies that need to be corrected in the AHL.
“Becoming a consistent pro every day. That’s what they are looking for in the NHL and if day-in and day- out I’m playing well here there’s no reason why I can’t play in that league. They play almost the same amount of games, similar type schedule, I just have to get to the point where I’m consistent everyday.”