Rockford, Il. – When Kirby Dach envisioned himself making his professional debut, he had no idea it would be as a member of the Rockford IceHogs. Still, his first stride onto the ice at the BMO Harris Bank Center on Oct. 12 brought goosebumps all the same.
“I was only in Rockford three or four hours before the home opener, but I got a pretty huge cheer when I stepped out of the hog head, so that was a cool experience,” said Dach.
It was a whirlwind of a day for the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2019 third overall selection, as he was sent to Rockford on a conditioning stint the morning of the IceHogs’ home opener. However, Dach felt comfortable very quickly thanks to a collection of connections he’d made throughout the summer.
“The team’s got a lot of guys that were in Traverse City with me, so I got to spend some time with them there and even more when we were at development camp in the summer,” said Dach. “I have a lot of close bonds with these guys and still talked to them even when we were apart, so it’s been good to get back here and familiarize myself with these guys again. And the guys I don’t really know have been awesome. They’ve welcomed me with open arms and have really been tremendous.”
While the addition of the 18 year old made for a unique night for the capacity crowd of 5,371, Dach noticed that the combination of Hawks prospects could be a glimpse at the future of the organization.
“You kind of hear about how guys had to learn the ropes in the AHL before they stuck in the NHL,” said Dach. “So for us younger guys to be here and have guys like [Kris] Versteeg and coach King, they obviously do a great job of teaching us and helping us along the way. I think it’s going to be a big help for not only myself but all the young guys in that room.”
Dach’s AHL assignment may only allow him a maximum of 14 days with the IceHogs, but his relationship with recently named captain, Versteeg, and exposure to four-time NHL All-Star turned player development coach, Brian Campbell, could transform the stint into a valuable developmental experience.
Dach and Versteeg have known one another since the former was with the Blades, and Dach was quick to point out how helpful Versteeg and Campbell have been the past week.
“He and Campbell have both been great to me. Steeger is obviously a forward so I talk to him a little bit more on what he sees and how I can improve, but I really like working with them on the ice. They help me with the little things, little details that make you a better pro every day. I think that’s kind of what I need to work on is just finding a consistent level of effort, but at the same time, having that pro mentality and getting rid of all the junior habits that I have.”
The St. Albert, Alberta native spent much of the past three seasons with the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League and amassed 129 points (38g, 91a) in 133 games. But, his introduction to professional hockey has highlighted which areas of his game he will need to advance, so that his dominance translates to the next level.
“For me, it’s about strength and speed,” said Dach. “The game is a lot faster and I will have to anticipate it. You don’t really know what the pace of an NHL game is going to be like until you get there, so I just have to get my legs under me and make sure I’m ready to go when my name is called and focus on being myself and not shying away from my game. Coming from junior where you’re playing against boys, at times you can easily bully your way to the net, but it’s a little tougher going against men who are stronger and smarter with their sticks and how they play positionally. For me, it’s learning that part of the game.”
Dach, who’d been sidelined by a concussion suffered during the prospect tournament, has appeared in two games with the IceHogs. The 6-foot-4 centerman is feeling more confident with each appearance but is still searching for his first point heading in to Friday night’s contest against the Chicago Wolves.
To no surprise, Dach has been tightly covered in losses to the Grand Rapids Griffins on Oct. 12 and the Laval Rocket on Oct. 14, but the prospect has his own thoughts about being the focus of the opposition.
“Missing a whole month of games wasn’t the best thing, but at the same time I had to take my health seriously and take a step back to ensure I was one hundred percent before coming back,” said Dach. “As for a target on my back, that’s a good thing. It means you’re a good player and that teams want to key on you to try and shut you down because you help the team win. For me, I just shut them out and try not to let them get in my head.”
After playing limited minutes at the beginning his stretch with Rockford, Dach has since progressed to the top line, where he is expected to center Matthew Highmore and Dylan Sikura against the Chicago Wolves Friday night.
“The main thing was getting my playing style back,” said Dach. “I’ve been happy with it, obviously not thrilled with the result in a couple of the games, but I just need to be myself and continue to make plays.”
Once his tenure in Rockford comes to a close, Dach’s next step is still unknown. What is known, though, is that Dach wants to win regardless of which sweater he’s wearing.
“First and foremost, it’s about team success because that breeds your own individual success. If it so happens that I get sent back to junior, I want to win a Memorial Cup, I want to win a WHL Championship. Personally, the World Juniors would be a big thing for me, obviously, as a kid growing up in Canada you watch that every Christmas. That’s the only personal thing I have on my radar, but at the same time I’m trying to stick in Chicago.”
“If I’m in Chicago, which is where I want to be and where I see myself, I want to help the team win and push for a playoff spot because once you get in the playoffs anything can happen. For us to take that step forward after missing the postseason the last couple years is going to be huge for our group, and we’ve got the guys to do it. We have a lot of talent and skill, but at the same time we have a lot of hard-working individuals who will push the pace in practice and better each other every day.”