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  • Lebda, Bollig bring Midwest ties to Rockford Print
    Written by Dan Marrazza   
    Friday, 23 November 2012 13:04

    Brett Lebda and Brandon Bollig have taken different routes to get to the Chicago Blackhawks organization, but they have one significant tie that binds them.

    On the surface, it would appear that current Rockford IceHogs teammates Brett Lebda and Brandon Bollig occupy completely different places in the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

    After all, Lebda, 30, is a 5-foot-11, 195-pound puck-moving defenseman who is in Rockford on a PTO while battling for the type of contract he had as a five-year mainstay with the Detroit Red Wings. Meanwhile, Bollig, 25, is a 6-foot-3, 215-pound bruising forward who is looking to emerge from the current lockout as an NHL regular for the first time in his career.

    Brett LebdaBut for all their differences, Lebda and Bollig are linked in one way which makes each of their presences in the Blackhawks organization very special—the Midwest.

    For Lebda, a native of the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, and Bollig, a native of the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Missouri, are both members of the Chicago Blackhawks organization while playing closer to their hometowns than ever before in their careers.

    “Growing up, I was actually a huge Blues fan,” joked Bollig. “I got a lot of crap from people back home when I signed with the ‘Hawks. I was still getting it a lot when I started playing with the ‘Hawks a little bit last year. But it’s all in good fun.”

    While Bollig admitted that his joining the Blackhawks organization raised a few eyebrows amongst his childhood friends, Lebda was quick to point out that his debut in the Blackhawks organization this season has 100% been a dream come true.

    “It’s a little surreal,” said Lebda. “I was always a Chicago Blackhawks fan growing up, back when Chris Chelios was the Blackhawks’ captain and best player. Playing here is like being in my backyard.”

    Although Lebda and Bollig didn’t have the same rooting interests as kids, are at different junctures of their careers and play completely different styles and positions, their mutual statuses as trailblazers of Midwestern hockey have exhibited them breaking through similar barriers to make it to professional hockey.

    Perhaps the best example of how long the odds have been for Lebda and Bollig to have even appeared in the NHL is the number of players that have come from their home states.

    Lebda is one of just 48 players from Illinois to have played a single game in the NHL, while Bollig is one of just 11 players from Missouri to have played in the NHL. Furthermore, Lebda—397 career NHL games—is one of just 16 Illinois players to have suited up in at least 200 NHL games, while only five Missouri-born players have ever reached the 200-game plateau.

    “When I started playing hockey, there wasn’t a rink within 10 or 15 miles of home,” said Bollig. “I started playing AAA hockey in sixth grade, and we were the only AAA team in the area. So we had to go out of town every weekend to play games—by plane— in Minnesota and Michigan.”

    “I think there were only two or three AAA teams in my area when I started playing,” added Lebda. “Now, there is a lot more competition at the youth level in the Chicago area than when I was growing up.”

    While Illinois and Missouri youth hockey teams still occasionally travel to states such as Minnesota and Michigan for tournaments, there is quantifiably more competition in the Midwest in the 2000s than the early 1990s. Currently, there are eight AAA youth hockey teams based out of Illinois and five based out of Missouri, on top of the various travel teams which play out of Illinois’ 85 ice rinks and Missouri’s 19 ice rinks.

    “Both teams (the Blackhawks and Blues) should be pretty strong out of the lockout, too,” said Bollig. “When a team starts doing better, its fan base gets a lot bigger. I know that when I was growing up, the Blues had stellar teams for a few years there. I know first-hand that having a good team can be huge for making a sport more popular in a city.”

    At least in terms of the Blackhawks’ status of being a top-level team when the lockout ends, Lebda’s and Bollig’s individual missions are to use their current time inBrandon Bollig Rockford—90 miles west of Chicago—to guarantee themselves roster spots in Chicago when the lockout ends.

    For Bollig, his mission entails continuing to throw his body around and being a physical force, while using extra ice time in the AHL to prove himself as being defensively responsible enough to be worthy of regular ice time in the NHL.

    Meanwhile, for Lebda, his mission is to play more like he did in his days as a Detroit Red Wing (2005-10) and less like how he played as a Toronto Maple Leaf (2010-11) and Columbus Blue Jacket (2011-12).

    “Lebda just needs to simplify his game,” said Rockford IceHogs assistant coach Ben Simon. When he competes, there aren’t too many defensemen, especially in the AHL, who will be able to keep up with him.”

    “Lebda skates well,” added IceHogs assistant coach Steve Poapst. “Anyone who can skate and handle the puck as well as he does has a chance to be a good player. For him, sticking somewhere could just be the matter of him finding the right fit.

    “With Brandon, we know that he probably isn’t going to bring a ton of offense,” said Poapst. “But he’s improved his skating a lot from his first professional season (2010-11) to his third season. In his first year, he struggled by getting into situations where he was behind the play, and in taking minor penalties because he couldn’t keep up or catch a guy. Now he’s able to get to those places and establish position. He’s become an all-situation player who can even kill penalties.”

    “Bollig has proven on a short-term basis that he can play in the NHL,” added Simon. “I think he was up for 20 games or so last year, so it’s about establishing longevity for him right now.”

    Of course, Bollig and Lebda will be working on their individual games within the confines of trying to help the Rockford IceHogs win games, and in trying to help the Blackhawks’ top affiliate qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

    Although they’re currently just 7-8-0-1, the IceHogs moved to within two points of a playoff spot with their 5-4 win on Wednesday night against the St. Louis Blues’ top affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen.
    Photos by Getty Images

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    Last Updated on Friday, 23 November 2012 13:17