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FEATURE: Red Deer duo took next step in Rockford

Brandon Hagel and Reese Johnson impressed in Rockford after starring in the WHL

by Austin Siegel / blackhawks.com

Spotting an Erie Otters sweater at the United Center became something like birdwatching this season.

Fans of the minor league team that once featured Blackhawks teammates Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome began showing up in the crowd, behind the glass and in line for concessions.

Thanks to Brandon Hagel and Reese Johnson, a Red Deer Rebels sweater might be your next United Center double take.

"Coming in as a new guy and not knowing anyone, being able to come over with one of your best friends is incredible," Hagel said. "Having that guy when you get here, the guy you've been playing with for the last four years… it couldn't have worked out any better."

The Blackhawks signed both Hagel and Johnson this season, just a few weeks apart. The former WHL teammates joined the Rockford IceHogs after wrapping up their final season in Red Deer last month.

"We're good buddies and have been for a while," Johnson said. "I don't think it could have worked out any better than having 'Hages' comes with me."

The pair of Canadian forwards spent the last four seasons as the faces of a Rebels team that hasn't missed the WHL Playoffs since 2014. The development of Hagel and Johnson has been a big reason for that success and why the Blackhawks couldn't bring themselves to break up a duo that combined for 155 points during the 2018-19 season. 

Hagel was the first domino to fall - signing an NHL contract with the Blackhawks in December.

"They were watching me for a while and, obviously, Stan [Bowman] was awesome about it," he said. "When I signed here I was getting texts from everyone. It was incredible and that drew my attention quite a bit."

Hagel saw his NHL hopes take a hit when the Buffalo Sabres - who selected him in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft - let his draft rights expire over the summer. Fortunately for Chicago, that was right around the time Hagel began a landmark season in which he posted career highs in goals, assists, and points. Hagel's dominant season landed him among the top five scorers in the WHL for the first time in his career, with 102 points in 66 games. 

Joining Rockford for the home stretch of the AHL season, Hagel noted the adjustment to an older league full of NHL-caliber talent. 

"I'm here to get the experience, see what it takes to get to the next level and try and make the team next year," Hagel said. "I'm not going to change my game. I know that I need to work hard. Even though I had 100 points in the WHL, it's not going to change the way I play my game."

Johnson is another player who isn't looking to change his approach, despite sharing the ice with teammates who have skated in the NHL. 

"I've always taken pride in the leadership role of my game," Johnson said. "Coming into a room like this, there's obviously older guys, but there's no reason I can't lead the best I can here too. Just talking on the ice and on the bench, trying to get the boys going every shift."

A few months after Hagel signed his first NHL contract with the Blackhawks, Johnson followed suit. The Saskatoon native positioned himself for an NHL deal with an impressive career in Red Deer, as Johnson scored 23 goals in 2017-18 before he was named the captain of the Rebels ahead of his final WHL season.

Improving his numbers in every statistical category this season, Johnson gave Blackhawks scouts plenty of reasons to return to Central Alberta.

"When I heard Hages signed, I was happy for him. He deserved it. He talked about how they came to watch him and stuff like that. It was pretty early on in the year," Johnson said. "They kind of saw me a bit then too. Nothing happened from there and three or four months down the road they came to watch me and it worked out."

Red Deer saw their 2018-19 season come to an end in the first round of the WHL playoffs, swept out of the postseason by the top-seeded Prince Albert Raiders. Even in defeat, Hagel and Johnson combined for eight points (5 G, 3 A) in the series, with Hagel dropping a hat trick on the Raiders in Game 2.

Arriving in Rockford for the final weeks of the season, the Red Deer contingent caught the eye of IceHogs head coach Derek King.

"The Western boys haven't missed a beat," King said. "You can see [Hagel] has got the hockey sense. You can see he has the ability to make plays. It's almost like Dylan Sikura going up, does everything right in the NHL but he's not getting rewarded. Same with Brandon there, it will take time before everything will kind of snowball."

Neither Hagel or Johnson made more than 10 appearances for Rockford before their season ended, as both players now turn their attention to a crucial offseason as they look to establish themselves at the AHL level. 

"It's nice to get in here and see what it's like, see what the next level is like," Hagel said. "Just watching the older guys, guys that played in the NHL and what they do and what it takes to get there. It's all a good learning curve, especially for the summer, going back home and knowing what I need to work on."

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