When the Blackhawks selected winger Garret Ross 139th overall in this past summer’s NHL draft, it’s unlikely most of the Chicago faithful had ever heard his name before. Yes, his impressive stats from the previous season proved why the Blackhawks would see offensive upside in the fifth-round pick, and his reputation as an agitator grew quickly, thanks to a YouTube video of his fight with Andrew Shaw.
But there was one Blackhawks observer who couldn’t have been more thrilled with the development: Ross’ Saginaw Spirit teammate Brandon Saad.
“Saad was one of the first people to call me after I was drafted, probably within five minutes,” Ross recalls. “I got his text message almost immediately.”
It’s easy to understand Saad’s excitement for both professional and personal reasons. Playing alongside Ross on the Spirit’s top line, the Blackhawks’ elite prospect recorded his best Ontario Hockey League campaign, scoring 34 goals and 76 points. While diverting attention away from his linemates with his chippy, gritty style, Ross managed to record career-highs in goals (25), assists (29) and points (54), while also drawing fewer penalty minutes (93, down from 111 the previous season). While they’re productive on the ice, away from game action the two share a good friendship, as well.
“We’ve been teammates for the past couple of years in Saginaw, and he’s a great guy,” Saad says of Ross. “My first year we played together a lot and then last year we played not the whole year but most of the year together. Over time, we’ve really built some good chemistry and we click together. It was a good season for both of us. I’m happy for him to be [with the Blackhawks] and to continue as his teammate.”
One might think that it’s because of Saad that Ross first caught the Blackhawks’ attention, but the team’s Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley says that the team has been watching Ross, and has been impressed with him, since his first OHL season in 2009-10.
“Ross is the type of player who catches your attention every time you see him play; he always did something, usually in a very competitive manner,” says Kelley. “He plays with a lot of energy. He’s very competitive from the first shift to the last. To play with a guy like Brandon, you have to be smart, you have to be able to skate and have puck skills. Garret’s a warrior. That’s the best way to describe him.
To play with a guy like Brandon, you have to be smart, you have to be able to skate and have puck skills. Garret’s a warrior. That’s the best way to describe him. - Dir. of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley
“Often when I’m scouting a game, I’ll talk to coaches from other teams and bring up certain players. And any time I brought up Garret’s name, the other coaches were liable to curse, but then say something like, ‘I wish I had him on my team.’”
Of course, a good word or two from Ross’ teammate did go a long way.
“With a player like Garret, you don’t want to show a lot of outward attention and clue other teams in, so we wound up doing a lot of our background work right through Brandon,” Kelley says. “When I would go see them play, I’d talk to Brandon, and when I would get around to mentioning Ross’ name, I’d always get an enthusiastic reaction. He was always very positive about him as a person and a player.”
“The scouts see games, but I was able to see him every day and skate with him in practice,” Saad says of his time as an “undercover scout.” “I was just able to give my feedback and obviously it was all positive. Ross is a good player so it worked out well for us. He’s the kind of person you want on your team.”
Saad also spent time counseling Ross through his first Blackhawks prospect camp in July.
“We talked a little bit about it. He said it was cool to be up here and learn from the professionals,” says Ross, who took part in Washington’s prospect camp as a free agent invitee last summer. “They look for you to come out, work hard and play your game.”
While Saad has a chance at the Blackhawks’ opening night roster this season, it’s more than likely that Ross will spend some more time honing his game before he gets a shot at the big club. But given a few years, the two may once again end up as linemates, but this time playing in front of 22,000 fans at the United Center.
“It would be awesome if it happened,” says Saad. “Starting off playing in the OHL on the same line, you never know where we could end up. If we could both end up in Chicago, it would be the experience of a lifetime.”