Nick Leddy remembers his worst bus ride came a few years ago when he was at the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers hockey team was driving from Minneapolis to play Michigan Tech in the middle-of-nowhere town of Houghton, Mich., located in one of the nation’s snowiest regions.
It’s a desolate drive in even the best of conditions, a 365-mile trek that puts you on a two-lane highway through northern Wisconsin. On this particular December trip, in 2009, Leddy and his teammates hit a snowstorm. “There was a huge accident along the way,” he recalled. “It was scary.”
The Chicago Blackhawks defenseman has been thinking a lot about bus trips lately, until now biding his time in the American Hockey League while the NHL sorted out its labor woes. Instead of chartered flights to Detroit and Phoenix, Leddy’s been hitting the long and open road with the minor league Rockford IceHogs.
Leddy hadn’t expected this early career detour, but he isn’t complaining. When the NHL season finally commences this Saturday, he will resume his position as a fixture on the Blackhawks blue line – and he’ll bring some new things with him.
Last season, Leddy logged the third-most minutes among the Hawks’ defensemen, and his role could conceivably grow during this lockout-shortened season. Many Hawks fans already see him on the verge of becoming one of the league’s elite defenders – and if this potential is realized, Leddy says he may owe a big debt of gratitude to his stopover with the IceHogs.
Since his NHL debut on Oct. 7, 2010, as a fresh-faced 19-year-old, Leddy has racked up 128 games with the Blackhawks. He wasn’t necessarily taking it for granted that he’d spend this entire season with the team, but he was hopeful.
“You never think like that,” Leddy said after a practice last month in Rockford. “You still have to prove yourself every day.”
The lockout, meanwhile, has given him a chance to polish his own game outside the pressurer cooker of the NHL.
In three months with the IceHogs, he’s shot the puck more often, become stronger in front of the net and taken on a leadership role not required of him on a Blackhawks team with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brett Seabrook.
Leddy finished his 31-game suburban stint with three goals and 13 assists.
All the while, the Hawks’ top brass has kept a close eye, often from the press box at Rockford’s BMO Harris Bank Center.
In the IceHogs, Leddy found a team with a strong nucleus of young players who have already begun making their mark in the NHL. Nine of his minor league teammates have seen time with the Blackhawks, including Jimmy Hayes, his roommate these lat few months at a Residence Inn off I-90.
It’s been nice, this life away from the big-time.
“A lot of my really good friends are down here and they are closer to my own age, so that is nice,” he said. “We have some of the guys who were on the (Blackhawks) last year that I’ve gotten to know really well. When we were up there we hung out every day. We really got to know each other well and became friends. We’ve kept that going.”
Leddy can come across as quiet and reserved off the ice, but he’s amped up when he hits the rink.
“He’s an unbelievably humble kid,” Hayes said. “You ask anybody on the team. He’s probably one of most respected guys…he’s only 21-years-old. The way he acts (on the ice), and the way his maturity level is, you wouldn’t think that. You can tell he’s been raised the right way.”
The maturity was evident in the way Leddy grabbed the reins in Rockford, all while trying not to overstep his role. After all, he’s still just a youngster.
“At my age, it’s kind of weird trying to help out like that,” said Leddy. “I try to explain something as best as I can and try not to sound like a veteran…because I’m definitely not that.”
One player who really took to Leddy’s leadership was rookie Adam Clendening, the Blackhawks’ second-round choice (36th overall) in the 2011 draft. The two were paired on the power play for the first part of the season, but played together full time the past two months.
Following the pairing, Clendening went on a nine-game point streak in which he picked up three goals and 11 assists. In the previous 14 games, he had only one goal and three assists.
“He’s learned a lot over the course of a year and a half in the NHL,” Clendening said. “And now I’m learning from him down here.”
In the end, the winter has been relatively kind to Chicago—and to Leddy as well. There were no scary rides, no snowstorms, and no accidents. Sometimes, even in sport as fast as hockey, its nice to take the bus for a while.