Patrick Williams, TheAHL.com Features Writer
The Chicago Blackhawks are counting on Drew Commesso to be a key part of their future.
Chicago went for the goaltender in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft, after his second season with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. He went on to play three years at Boston University before electing to turn pro last spring. Now the 21-year-old is beginning his pro journey with the Rockford IceHogs.
“Everything’s pretty new for me coming from college – new schedule, new team, new coaches,” Commesso said. “I’ve really just been trying to soak everything in, learn as much as I can, and develop as much as I can.”
Coming out of training camp this fall, Chicago assigned Commesso to Rockford to work in a tandem with second-year pro Jaxson Stauber. While the pair largely have evenly divided the work in the Rockford net, last season saw Commesso appear in 34 of BU’s 40 games as he led the Terriers to the national semifinal.
Five days after his college season ended, Commesso inked a three-year, entry-level deal with the Blackhawks and headed to Rockford to get familiar with the pro hockey environment. The native of Norwell, Mass., who had previously represented the United States at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, then headed to the 2023 IIHF World Championship in Finland.
After his playing season finally concluded, Commesso’s work accelerated.
Knowing that the American Hockey League schedule is nearly double that of the college game, and with an eye toward being eventually able to take on the workload of a number-one NHL goaltender, Commesso made getting physically stronger a top offseason priority. The AHL’s faster pace – both with the schedule and the on-ice play – demanded that. To that end, Commesso spent this past summer working with two young NHL goaltenders who have already made their own path through the AHL: Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars and Jeremy Swayman of the Boston Bruins.
“You kind of get away with some things in college that you can’t here,” Commesso acknowledged. “[Swayman] kind of became a mentor for me. I’m really grateful for him and the opportunity to skate with all of those great players this summer.
“He said, ‘The AHL is not easy. The league’s very skilled, a lot of great players.’ But he said, ‘Trust yourself. Trust your game. Have fun. Enjoy everything.’”
Between going to the World Championship, an offseason spent training with pros, NHL training camp, and now nearly two months with Rockford, Commesso has packed a lot into his brief pro career.
“The World Championship was great,” Commesso said. “It was really good for me. It feels like these past [seven] months I’ve really been a sponge. I just want to learn so much because there are so many people around me to help. It was great just to see the pace of play and practice with guys that have played a lot of NHL games and developed in the AHL as well.”
“I just learned as much as I could and pushed myself. I’m a really competitive guy and going over there and not playing a lot of the games, it didn’t rub me the wrong way but really just motivated me because I knew that I could play at that level. It kind of set the tone for the summer.”
In Rockford, that work is continuing. Commesso continues to fine-tune and tweak his on- and off-ice preparation and habits as he works to find what exactly best works for him. Some things seemed promising, only for him to find that they were not quite a fit. Finding the precise formula takes time.
“I’m trying to be the best goaltender I can be,” Commesso explained, “but also be the best person, and I think hockey is a lot about balance. You don’t want it to take over your life. So, a lot of the habits that I do are good overall health habits whether it’s sauna and cold-plunging a few times a week or it’s meditation, reading. Taking time to be grateful is something that I really take seriously. I think these habits help you be a happy person and that translates to playing freely on the ice.”
Part of that personal growth came with his decision to forgo his final season at Boston University.
“I didn’t really have a reason to leave,” Commesso acknowledged. “I loved it there. But at the end of the day, this is my goal. This is my dream, and I felt the time was right. I’ll never be able to repay BU for everything they gave me.”
With Rockford, Commesso has a chance to work with newly hired developmental goaltending coach Matt Smith. It’s a growing process for both of them as they learn each other as well as the pro game.
“One thing I love about Matt,” Commesso said, “is he’s so great off the ice and someone you can talk to about anything in life. Not just hockey. Kind of as a role model for me… It’s just great to have him.”
All of this work – in net as well as off the ice – is starting to pay off for Commesso and the IceHogs. He has gone 5-4-1 through 10 games, with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. He also collected his first pro shutout, an 18-save effort against Grand Rapids on Oct. 28.
And he knows the learning will continue.
“It’s still early in my career,” Commesso said. “I have so much room to grow and learn.”
TheAHL.com features writer Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.