Ryan Hartman's name floated in the world of hockey long before he laced up for his first professional game eight months ago.
He was ranked 16th among North American skaters in the Central Scouting final rankings in his draft year, going on to fulfill expectations when the Chicago Blackhawks chose him No. 30 in the 2013 NHL Draft. Though the wing was born in South Carolina, he grew up in Chicago, making an already memorable day that much more surreal.
"It probably took until a couple weeks after [to sink in]," Hartman said. "After the draft, I went down to South Carolina for two weeks with my family to relax and get away from hockey and celebrate a little bit. When I got back to Chicago, it definitely sank in that I was drafted."
Chicago draft picks in Rockford
Ryan Hartman (No. 30, 2013)
Teuvo Teravainen (No. 18, 2012)
Garret Ross (No. 139, 2012)
Mark McNeill (No. 18, 2011)
Phillip Danault (No. 26, 2011)
Adam Clendening (No. 36, 2011)
Klas Dahlbeck (No. 79, 2011)
Alex Broadhurst (No. 199, 2011)
Stephen Johns (No. 60, 2010)
Joakim Nordstrom (No. 90, 2010)
Mac Carruth (No. 191, 2010)
Michael Leighton (No. 165, 1999)
It's something every athlete dreams of: Spending their formative years idolizing the local team and molding their game after the greats, only to one day be able to have the chance to wear that same jersey. Hartman, 20, is hoping to join players like Chris Chelios and Ed Olczyk as Illinois natives given the chance to eventually skate for the Blackhawks rather than just cheering from the stands.
But before Hartman can officially introduce himself to the Madhouse on Madison, he is practicing the right steps that will lead him to the next level with Chicago's American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.
After spending two seasons with the U.S. National Team, Hartman burst onto the radar with two consecutive point-per-game seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. He earned an invite to play in the Canadian Hockey League's Top Prospects Game just weeks after he helped the Americans capture gold at the 2013 World Junior Championship.
Now in the midst of his rookie professional season -- he had seven points in nine games with the IceHogs after finishing his junior career last spring -- Hartman's prior experience and hunger to keep climbing have continued to help him succeed.
"In the OHL, the guys are the same size or just a little bigger than me, maybe. Now I'm one of the smaller guys in the league. It's definitely different," he said. "You have to keep your head up at times and know who's on the ice. Physicality is part of my game too. I kind of enjoy the challenge."
"I think last year was good for him to see what it's all about and how we operate in Rockford. I think he's done well," IceHogs coach Ted Dent said. "He's shown an ability to sacrifice his body, block shots, [and] do whatever it takes to keep the puck out of our net defensively. He's good in the offensive zone around the net, he has soft hands and the ability to make some plays."
With 12 of the 23 players on Rockford's roster being born in 1990 or later, the IceHogs are full of fresh, young talent. Eleven of this year's IceHogs were drafted by Chicago between 2010 and 2013, four of whom were first-rounders. Because of the overwhelmingly young group and his proximity to home, Hartman has been able to transition into the professional ranks with significantly fewer bumps in the road.
"It was nice to get that adjustment last year, and it's nice this year because we have a lot of guys that are around the same age," he said. "It's a pretty young team, which makes it a lot easier being a rookie."
Prior to his brief stint in Rockford last season, Hartman was already familiar with fellow forwards Alex Broadhurst and Garret Ross, as well as IceHogs defenseman Stephen Johns, taking some of the suspense out of an otherwise unfamiliar locker room.
Despite that, there are still adjustments he is making and aspects of AHL hockey that greatly differ from the major junior lifestyle.
"You're playing more games more consistently; you're playing three games in two-and-a-half nights. I was pretty fast last year, and now I can see that there's plenty of guys that are much faster than I am," Hartman said. "I definitely have to take that into account and work on that part of my game a lot if I want to make that next step to the NHL."
Hartman has recorded four goals and eight points through 20 games with Rockford this season, with three multipoint efforts. He has also provided a spark of energy to a team that sits atop the AHL's Midwest Division after finishing four points out of the playoff race last season.
"He's been great. He's really played well lately," Dent said. "He goes hard in the corners, he goes hard to the net, [and] he's put our team on the power play quite a bit recently, drawing penalties."
Chicago is the end goal. The allure is strong, and the winning culture the Blackhawks have built glitters just as strong 90 miles away in Rockford as it does in person. But even though their roster is one of the toughest to crack in the NHL, Hartman doesn't let the depth up top sink him.
"You can't really look at that," he said. "Every team is tough to crack in the NHL. They're stacked up and down the lineup. At the same time, that gives you time to develop and you don't have that pressure to become a good NHL player right away. You have time to work on your game and be patient."
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