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Former Blackhawks 1st-round pick Ryan Hartman returns to Chicago looking like a new man — and having a career season — with the Minnesota Wild: ‘Things have been good’

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2022-01-21
https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=23eana_0drtU3OY00
Blackhawks left wing Ryan Hartman controls the puck in front of Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray during the first period of a game on Oct. 7, 2017, at the United Center. Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Minnesota Wild center Ryan Hartman is a former Chicago Blackhawks forward who calls West Dundee home, so he has had Friday’s matchup at the United Center marked on his calendar for months.

He needs a haircut.

“I got a guy there I get my haircuts from,” said Hartman, 27, who lives in Lincoln Park in the offseason.

He said he checks the schedule and makes his appointments immediately.

“It gets pretty long during the season,” Hartman said.

As he prepares to play the Hawks for the seventh time (and fifth in Chicago) on Friday in the first game of a home-and-home series, it’s his play that’s raising eyebrows.

Hartman is third on the Wild with 30 points — one off his career high — and leads the team with a whopping plus-30 rating, which ranks second in the NHL.

He has racked up 16 goals and 14 assists in 35 games, which puts him on a pace for a career-high 37 goals. That would blow away his current best of 19 goals in 2016-17, when he played 76 games with the Hawks.

“Things have been good,” he said. “It’s been a good year as a team and as an individual.”

Since joining the Wild in 2019, Hartman has worked his way from up from fourth-liner to centering the top line this season with Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello.

Hawks defenseman Seth Jones, who played with Hartman in the U.S. national team development program, said Hartman has been “one of their best players this season offensively.”

“He plays with energy, plays hard and physical,” Jones said. “He’s always in front of our net, so I have to keep him out of there, our paint and causing havoc.

“He’s putting the puck in the net and making plays. He’s a dangerous player for them that we’ll have to keep our eye on.”

Hartman said he had a similar feel for the game in ‘16-17, his first full season in Chicago, when he put up 19 goals and 12 assists.

“Playing a lot of minutes, being used on the power play and the penalty kill, when you play those type of minutes, you feel the flow of the game,” Hartman said. “You’re involved, you’re making a difference — as opposed to playing seven to 10 minutes and you get the puck and it feels foreign on your stick.”

Hartman started off young showing a lot of promise, and certainly his arrival in Chicago as the hometown hero brought a lot of expectations, but he faced some setbacks before getting to the place he is now.

‘You’ll never be Wayne Gretzky, but you can play like Mark Messier’

Hartman’s father, Craig, 54, who works in the insurance investment industry, said Ryan hails from four generations of Blackhawks fans.

Dad played Division I soccer at South Carolina, and Ryan was born in Hilton Head Island, S.C. But Craig thought Ryan would have more opportunities in the Chicago area than growing up in a resort town, so they moved back.

Make no mistake, they were a hockey family.

Ryan remembers his father building outdoor rinks and his parents taking turns driving 40 minutes each way at least twice a week to take him to practices and games.

During a United States Hockey League showcase when Ryan was 14, Craig remembers seeing Ryan’s first hockey fight.

“I didn’t want to see my kid fight, but at the last game some guy wasn’t playing the game properly and Ryan challenged him,” Craig said. “They dropped the gloves — it was one of the best fights I saw, especially for little kids.

“I was just afraid he was going to lose a tooth and I’d be in trouble with mom. It was probably one of his best fights, he fed this kid a few hard ones to the mouth.

“Neither kid backed away. ... It was like a 1970s fight.”

While the Hartmans were dedicated Hawks fans, home games weren’t aired on TV for much of Ryan’s childhood — which included him attending Fremd High School in Palatine as a freshman — so their hockey menu would include other teams, such as the Edmonton Oilers.

And of course, when the Hawks started making the playoffs in the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews era, the Hartmans focused in on the Stanley Cup runs.

But there was a lesson underneath the cheering.

“My message to my son was, ‘You’ll never be Patrick Kane — and Patrick Kane’s a freak of nature — but you can play like Jonathan Toews: play hard, play physical, work your ass off,’ ” Craig said.

“And it was the same with the Edmonton Oilers. Back in the day, you had Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier. I said, ‘You’ll never be Wayne Gretzky, but you can play like Mark Messier. You can be a leader, you can be physical, you can work your ass off.’ That’s how you play the game.”

Craig said he showed Ryan videos of Messier and later Toews when he emerged as a star.

“I’d make him watch Jonathan Toews and say, ‘That’s how you play the game. You work every shift, you battle in the corners, you battle on the boards.’”

Ryan played for Chicago Mission youth hockey — “They’ve got a board in the (Fifth Third Arena) lobby there: Mission Alumni” — before joining the U.S. national team’s two-year development program and moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., then played two years with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers.

Seth Jones remembers what kind of skater Hartman was when they were in the national development program.

“I played with him when I was at the U.S. program when I was 16, 17 years old, and at the World Juniors as well, and Russia,” Jones said. “He’s always played with an edge.”

‘I think he was heartbroken’

The Hawks drafted Ryan Hartman with the 30th pick in 2013, but in February 2018, they traded him to the Nashville Predators for Victor Ejdsell and two draft picks that became Nicolas Beaudin and Philipp Kurashev.

“A lot of kids, they grew up cheering for their team if they’re from Boston or New York or wherever,” Ryan said. “They grew up fans of those teams, and then when they get drafted they have to turn that off and start focusing on where they are now playing. I didn’t have to do that.

“I was a Hawks fan my whole life and then got to continue to be a Hawks fan when I was there. ... When I first got drafted I never thought I was going to leave. I thought I was going to be a Blackhawk forever.

“It’s very rare, I guess, in the NHL for one player to stay in one place their whole career. It doesn’t happen too often. But you never really picture yourself being traded. That’s where my head was at.”

Craig said there always was pressure of being a Chicago-area product and living up to the hopes of the city.

“I think he was heartbroken when they traded him,” Craig said. “He wanted to be a Blackhawk his entire life. So he’s a Chicago boy and he wanted to make Chicago proud of him. I think there’s something special about him being here. It’s not easy.

“I was disappointed. I didn’t understand it but I also get the business side of it.”

Ryan agreed: “It was kind of tough on my family. But it was a new challenge.”

Ryan came to embrace the idea of going to Nashville, Tenn. After all, the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final the previous season, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

“Going from Chicago to Nashville, going from a team that was going to miss the playoffs in Chicago to a playoff team, you can’t really be upset by stuff like that,” he said. “You’re getting an opportunity to go win, and that’s kind of all I’ve wanted to do. Ever since being part of that ’15 (Blackhawks) team and seeing all the Cup run and the party and parade and all that stuff, that’s always been my goal.”

The Predators finished first in the Central Division and advanced as far as the second round of the playoffs.

‘We had a heart-to-heart’

Ryan Hartman played another season with the Predators, but in January 2019 he started to see his minutes go down. In late February, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, with whom he finished the 2018-19 season.

“It was tough, going to a team — I don’t think I ever missed playoffs before except for that year in Philly,” Ryan said. “So that was the only tough part, and not feeling like I was really part of their future in Philly. Just kind of there to finish the season. Obviously, they didn’t need me the next year.”

Craig has an even dimmer recollection of his son’s time with the Flyers. He felt the coaching staff at the time didn’t really know Ryan.

“He told me before his first game, they made him watching videos of him hitting players,” Craig said. “(Ryan) said, ‘Dad, I’ve been hitting players since you taught me how to hit, since I was a little kid. ... Like really, you’re going to make me watch video? I was born to hit people. I wanted somebody to show pride in that I can score goals.’

“I don’t think he was very comfortable there because the coaches had no idea who he was. He’s in a contract year and he’s not allowed to kill penalties, he’s just kind of a nobody there. He hated it.”

He had two goals and four assists in 19 games for the Flyers.

In June, Ryan was dealt to the Dallas Stars and became a free agent after they did not tender him a qualifying offer, opening the door for him to sign with the Wild.

“Minnesota was the one we went with, and wasn’t even necessarily a money thing,” he said. “It was depth chart. They didn’t have many righties on their team. We went over all that stuff. We tried to find a place that was best fit for me, and that was Minnesota.”

He signed a three-year extension in April with an annual cap hit of just $1.7 million.

“We had a heart-to-heart about my expectations, his expectations. And I was thinking the financial side of it,” Craig said. “Reading the media and what the expectations and what his contract value should be, I was thinking like he should finally get a payday here.

“He said, ‘Dad, I get to be there for three years, stability, and my GM (Bill Guerin) and my coach (Dean Evason) love me and they believe in me, and I have an opportunity to show my skills. ... I have a chance to be on the power play and end of the season being on the top line. I think I can show them how much I can bring to the team.’

“I was like, ‘Go for it.’”

Craig agrees that it worked for the best.

“I’m so happy he did that because he was smarter than I am.”

‘Shoot the damn puck’

Just like Ryan’s father let him know he’s no Gretzky or Kane, the Wild made it clear he’s no Zach Parise either.

“I talked with (general manager) Bill Guerin last year and there were some points where maybe on a two-on-one, I tried to make a pass through a ‘D’ as opposed to shooting,” Hartman said. “Billy’s … not afraid to tell you, ‘Listen, you’re not a 100-point guy or a skill guy that’s going to feed a perfect pass every time. Shoot the damn puck.’

“So I’ve taken that. I don’t know how many shots I have, but I bet it’s more than I’ve had the last couple seasons. I’ve just been shooting the puck a lot more.”

Ryan pegged his step up in evolution to last season, his second with the Wild.

“Last year we had a void at center with some injuries and I got moved to center temporarily to help. ... Started playing really well,” he said. “It almost kind of felt natural for me at that center position.

“I played center in Chicago when Arty (Artem Anisimov) was out, with Kaner and ‘Bread Man’ (Artemi Panarin) for a little bit. So it’s not my first time playing center. My exit meetings at the end of last season, we had a conversation with the coaching staff and their plan was to keep me at center for the start of this coming season.”

‘How do you know someone in Edmonton?’

It’s serendipity.

Ryan and his girlfriend, Lauren Storhoff, have been dating since they were teenagers, and her parents were Wild season ticket holders, Craig said.

“Her parents took me to a Minnesota-Blackhawks game before Ryan was even drafted with the Blackhawks,” Craig said. “And they’re just great people, sweet people. ... Lauren’s a big part of our family and she came to the draft and they’ve been best friends and dating a long time and she’s a real special person.”

Joked Craig: “I said, ‘I can’t stand you, Jon’ — that’s Lauren’s father — ‘you get to do all these cool things with my son. Hung his TV in the basement of his new house. You guys go fishing together. I hardly even see my kid anymore.’ ”

Craig plans to meet up with Jon before going to the Hawks-Wild game at Xcel Energy Center on Saturday.

Ryan is used to seeing a lot of family at games, no matter what team he was playing for.

“I have my two comp tickets we get every game,” he said. “I happened to buy two season tickets that we passed around. My dad was in charge, he was the ticket master. He was in charge of giving the tickets out to people.”

Ryan has relatives in Birmingham, Ala., on his mother’s side, so it wasn’t unusual to see up to 20 Alabamans at a Predators game.

“My grandmother passed away my second year in Nashville and she never got to see me play until I got to Nashville,” he said. “So she came to a bunch of games my first year there.”

Through childhood tournaments, juniors and meeting new people with each NHL stop, Craig has brought a range of friends, relatives and acquaintances to Ryan’s games.

Said Craig: “When he first became a pro, no matter what town he was playing in there was someone that wanted to say hi to him, ‘How do you know someone in Edmonton?’ ‘Well, he was my roommate in college.’ ‘I’m in Dallas, who do you know here?’ That’s Tanner’s old teammate’s dad.’”

Between the Hartmans and Storhoffs, Ryan has a huge support system. Minnesota has become home for him, and he wants to make it even more of a home.

“Me and my girlfriend have been together for nine years now,” he said. “We started dating in high school. We do live together in Chicago. We actually just bought a place here in Minnesota, currently moving all that stuff in right now.”

He admitted, “There’s some pressure on for sure to get engaged after nine years. It’s about time. ... It’s coming at some point.”

Craig, never once to mince words, said, “I’m hoping they get engaged and have kids soon. A grandkid would be good.”

‘He’s still a Chicago boy’

For all his Chicago connections, you’d think Hartman still played for the Blackhawks.

He still does skills work with Blackhawks consultant Brian Keane and trains with former goalie Paul Goodman, now a strength and conditioning coach.

“Been with Paulie since being with the Blackhawks,” Hartman said. “Work out with him every summer. He’s got his own little workout thing going at Fifth Third.”

He also golfs in the summer with Kane, Alex DeBrincat and broadcaster Pat Foley.

“That connection is always there. It’s always good to come back,” he said.

During the season, Hartman rents his Lincoln Park home to Hawks defenseman Caleb Jones; before that it was Connor Murphy.

“Murph took care of my place. He was spotless,” Hartman said. “I think he’s kind of a clean freak. He took really good care of it. I haven’t seen my place since Caleb moved in, but I imagine it’s the same thing.

“My mom is good friends with the Joneses’ mom, Amy. They’ve kept in touch since the U.S. program. That’s how we got connected. We’re always happy to try and help out. It’s nice (that) it’s not an empty house. It’s nice to have someone watching over it as well.”

Seth Jones, Caleb’s older brother and Hawks teammate, has Hartman covered.

“I go over there every once in a while to see him, and the place is great. It’s nice of him that he got a rent to my brother, but my brother’s keeping it clean, if he hears this,” Seth Jones said with a smile.

Craig Hartman keeps ties too.

“I still text message Jonathan Toews’ father and Patrick Kane’s father,” Craig said. “It’s a friendship you’ll have rest of your life. Eddie Olczyk knows my family and Troy Murray still texts me stuff when Ryan has a good game.

“(Ryan) still bleeds Blackhawk but he’s super happy where he’s at. He wouldn’t change anything if he could. But he’s still a Chicago boy.”

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