ROCKFORD, ILL.—Carter Hutton is really good and really normal. If you are a goalie, it is nice to be both, but not necessary. If you are the ace netminder with the Rockford IceHogs, and you are clearly trending toward a career in the National Hockey League, it is a bonus.
The Blackhawks, after all, have a history of employing icons at what is arguably the most strenuous position in team sports. Some of these men fought occupational hazards, such as superstitions, insomnia, vomiting and random acts of twitching. One day, Hutton might also succumb to hot flashes upon fetching a carton of milk at the grocery store.
However, at 26, Hutton’s only apparent bow to the brotherhood of odd habits is a fish painted on his mask. Did we mention that he’s normal?
“So normal that it’s abnormal,” mused Mark Bernard, the Blackhawks’ general manager of minor league affiliations at his desk here in the BMO Harris Bank Center, home of Chicago’s American Hockey League affiliate. “I was a goalie for a long time, and like a lot other goalies, I was quirky, on the edge, a little different. Not Hutton. If he was a skater, a forward or a defenseman, you would put a letter on his jersey. But it’s tough to be a captain or an alternate when you’re a goalie.”
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Two summers ago, Bernard approached vice president/general manager Stan Bowman and then-assistant general manager Marc Bergevin with a modest proposal. Could he, Bernard, sign this promising young fellow as a No. 3 goalie in Rockford? The Blackhawks are dedicated to developing and nurturing from within, even if luxuries are expensive, so Hutton came aboard. He seized the No. 1 job in Rockford around mid-season, was voted the IceHogs’ most valuable player, and now is unofficially regarded as the No. 3 goalie within the entire organization.
“Oh, Hutts is unbelievable,” said Nick Leddy, a defensive stalwart in Rockford, as he was for the Blackhawks last season. “He’s so quick, so good at spotting the puck. Even if you make a mistake in front of him, he’ll make a save and you say to yourself, ‘How did he do that?’”
After Sunday night’s 3-1 triumph over San Antonio, Hutton owns a tiny goals against average of 2.25 and a hefty save percentage of .925. That’s called picking up where he left off in 2011-12, when Hutton’s numbers were 2.35 and .917. No wonder he won that MVP trophy, wherever it is. As Bernard points out, Hutton respectfully accepted it, then designated it for a dark place, maybe a closet back home in Thunder Bay, Ont.
“I didn’t do that because I didn’t appreciate it or was ungrateful,” said Hutton. “It’s just that I have dreamed of only one objective since I was a kid. I want to make it to the NHL. If you don’t want that, what are you thinking? I’ve gotten a taste. I’ve been a backup for 14 games with three teams—Philadelphia, San Jose, and, last year, the Blackhawks. But I’ve never played, and being up there, even sitting on the bench, just whet my appetite to go up, stay and play.”
Most goalkeepers are products of an evolutionary process. For every Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy who arrived in the NHL ready and able, there are dozens who took time to mature. Mike Smith, drafted 161th overall in 2001, didn’t make it big until his third NHL team, the Phoenix Coyotes, who eliminated the Blackhawks last spring from the playoffs. Jonathan Quick, who won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in June, was the 72nd pick in 2005. Tony Esposito was an understudy with the Montreal Canadiens before the Blackhawks stole him. He’s in the Hall of Fame, along with Ed Belfour, an undrafted free agent like Hutton.
“I was always decent, but never elite, really didn’t grow physically until I was about 17 and didn’t develop until I was in college,” said Hutton, who admittedly wasn’t a hot item for recruiters. He went where he was wanted—the University of Massachusetts-Lowell—and beyond the rink, he obviously found the library. He earned a degree with a double major in business finance and entrepreneurship, which explains why his vision extends beyond flying pucks. Hutton operates a summer hockey school in Thunder Bay, where he is a partner in a strip mall, and also organizer of an annual fishing tournament—thus the cartoon small mouth bass waving a Canadian flag on his headgear.
“Reminds me of home,” said Hutton, who gravitated toward the net as a kid, much as he preferred being a catcher in baseball. When he staged a cameo performance at first base or in the outfield, he felt like an outsider looking in. Both managers in the recent World Series—Bruce Bochy of San Francisco and Jim Leyland of Detroit—are former catchers. Men with masks, men of action. Is there a word for this?
“Leadership,” said Ted Dent, Rockford’s head coach. “Carter is definitely part of our leadership group. He is not low maintenance. He is zero maintenance. He has developed a good relationship with our developmental goalie coach, Andrew Allen, has great character that carries a message through our locker room, and is totally unselfish. Articulate, personable, devoted. Competitive, but not to the point where he gets hung up on the last goal or personal statistics. I am very comfortable with him in the net. Some guys are better the higher they go. All Carter needs is a chance, like everybody else in life.”
At 6-1 and 195 pounds, Hutton looms tall and stands square in the cage, handles the puck deftly enough to spare his defensemen the occasional hit, yet avoids roaming toward trouble. As Esposito noted, when a misplay occurs in hockey, only one guy gets to have a red light ignite over his head. But gradually refining his skills in Rockford--and briefly before that with the Blackhawks’ Toledo Walleye affiliate in the East Coast League where Smith and Quick honed theirs--has served Hutton well.
As for dinner, he might be served by Brandon Bollig, the Blackhawks’ rugged winger. They share an apartment here. Bollig cooks, Hutton eats. What kind of meals are on the menu?
“Normal,” said Bollig. But of course.