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From fandom to farm system, next generation of Blackhawks continue their journey

by Joe Rajchel / Chicago Blackhawks
Nick Schmaltz is the latest Blackhawks fan to don his favorite jersey as a prospect (Chase Agnello-Dean / Chicago Blackhawks).

The “Golden Age” of Blackhawks hockey—that’s the term a team is allowed to use when it wins two Stanley Cups in four years and makes four trips to the Western Conference Final in the span of six years. This recent run of success has rejuvenated Chicago’s fan base, and now, a fraction of this fan base has turned into the next generation of prospects that hope to continue the team’s prosperity.

One interesting feature of this year’s Prospect Camp was the handful of invitees who identify as lifelong Blackhawks fans, and whose most striking memories of the Chicago Blackhawks started to develop around 2007 with the emergence of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Anthony Louis, a native of Winfield, Ill., and the Blackhawks’ fifth-round draft pick in 2013, has now gone through the experience of camp twice, and is no longer overwhelmed by the emotions of being a Blackhawk.

“Last year I was just trying to get to know the staff,” Louis said. “This year I’m much more comfortable. I know everyone now; I’m just part of the organization.”

Any parent of a child who desires to play in the NHL wants to see them get drafted and succeed. However, there is an extra level of excitement that comes when the team plays only 30 miles away from home.

“I was with my dad and his brother out at the Draft when it happened. Seriously, I’ve never seen my dad yell so loud in happiness,” said Louis. “My mom called me roughly a hundred times, and my three sisters were all going crazy.”

Being drafted by a team so close to home allows for a sense of family and tradition to permeate throughout a career, and the team that brings a family together can continue to do so as a member begins his NHL journey.

“My family came out the first two days [of camp], and maybe some friends [will show up],” Louis said. “I tell them not to tell me if they’re coming, just so that I play the same no matter what. I don’t want to try and do too much out there.”

The sense of awe is still washing over 2014 first-round draft pick Nick Schmaltz. He hails from neighboring Wisconsin, grew up a fan of the Blackhawks and has made it known on more than one occasion that he looks up to Patrick Kane.

“I’m used to just wearing [Blackhawks] t-shirts around, so now, getting my own jersey is pretty cool,” said Schmaltz.

With all of the aforementioned success of the Blackhawks, players are coming into the organization having grown up watching and modeling themselves after members of the Stanley Cup-winning core.

Louis was 15 years old when he watched Kane score the overtime winner against the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Stanley Cup in 2010. It’s a testament to the organization that current stars—who have not yet reached their prime—are able to influence the play of up-and-coming players, especially local fans.

It’s great to be part of the organization that you’ve been a fan of your whole life. Some guys grow up in Boston as Boston fans and get drafted by Winnipeg or Montreal, so I got lucky, not having to cheer for anyone else.Ryan Hartman

“All my life, I’ve watched Kane,” Louis said. “I’m a small guy like him, a skill guy. I model my game after him.”

Just getting drafted is the realization of a dream after years of hard work for all of these prospects. Being selected by their childhood team is only that much more fortunate of a situation.

“It’s great to be part of the organization that you’ve been a fan of your whole life,” said Ryan Hartman, a West Dundee, Ill., native and 2013 first-round draft pick. “Some guys grow up in Boston as Boston fans and get drafted by Winnipeg or Montreal, so I got lucky, not having to cheer for anyone else.”

For Louis, it has been a juggling act between knowing that his favorite team has drafted him and knowing he has a lot of work to do before he earns a contract and a roster spot. Until then, he’s happy to be a fan and root for his team.

“Growing up watching them made me want to play for them someday, but now that it’s my second year here, [I think] that could be me in a few years, playing at the same level,” Louis said. “I can still just be a fan; I don’t want to be cocky and take anything for granted until I’m on the team.”

Hartman knows he’s lucky to have been drafted and signed, not only by his favorite team, but also by a team that plans to be competitive for years to come. Potentially getting the opportunity to win his hometown team another Stanley Cup is just an added bonus.

“It’s been a dream of mine to play in the NHL, so hopefully I get the chance,” said Hartman. “If I do, I’m at the best place to win a Stanley Cup—this organization is probably the best chance you can get.”

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