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Rockford is just the right place for Poapst

by Lindsay Kramer
Even as he faces the prospect of driving about 75 miles out of Chicago almost every day, new Rockford assistant coach Steve Poapst never considers himself to be truly leaving the city.

That trip, he estimates, should take him maybe 70 minutes, at most. That's nothing. Heck, sometimes the 16-mile drive from his suburban home into the heart of the Windy City takes him close to an hour.

"From looking at that point, the commute is a lot easier," Poapst said. "It's the same thing. Just less frustrating."

Chicago always will have its strings around Poapst's heart no matter how far he travels. It's the place where he got his true NHL start and now is the home base for his debut as an AHL coach.

The Blackhawks plucked Poapst, 41, from the Chicago Steel of the USHL, where his work as coach in developing young blueliners earned him a reputation as an up-and-comer. That was his position in the pros, one that he grinded and squeezed for every drop of talent he had.

Poapst turned pro in 1991-92 but didn't gain any true footing in the NHL until the Blackhawks gave him 36 games in 2000-01. He played 220 of his 307 NHL games with Chicago from 2000-04. He also skated in 498 AHL games with Baltimore, Portland and Norfolk.

"My development time was a little longer than most," Poapst said. "I look at everything as a puzzle and I work through it. You have to be open, look for the right people, the right help at the right time. It's about understanding when you are ready and knowing what to do with your opportunities."

Poapst finally exploited his chance when he stopped worrying about how he'd fare in the NHL and instead focused on realizing that he belonged there alongside the League's greats. It's a mindset he wants his players to get into a lot earlier than he did.

"I call that the 'awe factor' with players. You can't look at that and be nervous in that situation," he said. "Once kids get past that and do what they do best, (they realize) you have a job to do just like they have a job to do, and hopefully I can do it better then you in the end."
Brooks relishing challenge of pro hockey -- The first assist on Dan Brooks' hiring as an assistant coach with Peoria last week goes to his wife, Nicole.

The two were at a Blackhawks game several years ago. At the time, Dan was coaching at Brown. Nicole said she liked the pro game, that it was maybe something Dan should get into.

"She asked me, 'What do you want to do?'" Dan recalled. "I was like, I want to coach pro hockey, I want to pursue that route. I always had it in the back of my mind."

It quickly moved to the front from there. Brooks took the risk of leaving the college game for the uncertainty of junior hockey. The past two seasons he was an assistant for Drummondville of the QMJHL, including one year under Guy Boucher, now the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"If you want to discover new oceans, you have to leave the shore," Brooks said. "A lot of college guys don't want to go to major junior. I think people get comfortable in the situation they are in. You play your 40 games (in college). No one really bothers you. In major junior hockey, if you don't win, you're gone. I want to be challenged every day."

Brooks is steaming out of the gate to meet those demands. A recent summer evening found him winding up a 12-hour day with the staff preparing power-point presentations to teach Rivermen rookies organizational systems for the upcoming Traverse City prospect tournament.

"I'm a fanatic about details. It's just the way I am," said Brooks, 43. "Hockey has changed a lot. Over the last couple of years there's been a real technological move in the development of hockey. Is it good or bad? I don't have the answer. I think today's kids are visual learners. They need to hear it, but they need to see it, as well."
Lewis hoping for better times with Nashville -- There were times last season that defenseman Grant Lewis felt nearly invisible playing for Chicago and Hershey.

That would have been a neat trick to pull off -- Lewis goes 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds -- if it literally wasn't so painful.

"It was definitely a weird year for me," he said. "It was kind of an awkward season in general."

He should have a much more noticeable presence in 2010-11.

"My development time was a little longer than most. I look at everything as a puzzle and I work through it. You have to be open, look for the right people, the right help at the right time. It's about understanding when you are ready and knowing what to do with your opportunities." -- Steve Poapst

That was Nashville's plan, at least, when it acquired the 25-year-old from Atlanta last week in exchange for forward Ian McKenzie. Lewis played in just 26 games for Chicago last season and then 10 more with the Bears after a Clear Day loan.

He got to rattle the noisemakers at Hershey's Calder Cup party, but that was about it. Lewis saw action in just one playoff game, in the first round.

The problem wasn't talent -- Lewis was a second-round pick in 2004 -- but a recovering right knee. The season before -- cringe factor alert -- his kneecap was broken when it inconveniently got in the way of a shot. Lewis missed the start of last season and never fully regained strength in the leg.

"I've had a few injuries in my day. By far, this was the worst one," he said. "Going back to Chicago would have been a tough situation for me. I never got my feet under me. I was in and out of the lineup."

Lewis faces the same battle for minutes in Milwaukee, but he at least goes there with the peace of mind that his knee shouldn't be a factor in that pursuit.

"I haven't felt this good in a while," he said. "I think this is my year. I'm really excited. I think Nashville as an organization will be as well."
New England latest stop on Smith family adventure -- Center Wyatt Smith looks at the closing years of his career as one big sightseeing tour. He gets to keep playing hockey. His wife, Paige, and 1-year-old daughter, Ruby, can visit new places and make new friends.

"We get to see a lot of the country. It's a good thing. We've never been disappointed in what's gone on," said Smith, 33. "My wife is pretty social. She gets to meet a lot of wives and girlfriends. She can talk and chat and get along with everybody."

The newest social scene: Boston. Or Providence. Or both.

Smith signed a two-way deal with the Bruins last week. In the last three seasons alone, the veteran has played with one NHL team -- Colorado -- plus AHL squads in Lake Erie, Norfolk, San Antonio and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. And that doesn't even include his previous AHL swings, through Springfield, Milwaukee, Bridgeport and Houston.

"It's not easy, obviously. We're still up to doing this life. I still have the drive to play in this league," said Smith, who had 13 goals and 35 assists in 76 games with the AHL Penguins last season. "I don't feel old, but in my profession I am old. It's just a matter of accepting the role, staying healthy. I always told myself I would play as long as I could, as long as I'm having fun."
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