IceHogs’ Hardman on winding road to NHL

Photo: Todd Reicher

📝 by Patrick Williams

Rockford IceHogs forward Mike Hardman has long been willing to take a longer path to reach his destination.

Go back to 2019. First Matt Boldy went to the Minnesota Wild as the 12th pick in that summer’s National Hockey League Draft. Four spots later, the Colorado Avalanche grabbed Alex Newhook.

Boldy and Newhook then went on to form two-thirds of a Boston College forward line that blazed through college competition. Newhook has settled in with the Avalanche after a 10-game American Hockey League stint earlier this season with the Colorado Eagles. As for Boldy, he is fine-tuning his game with the Iowa Wild and looks to be well on track to future NHL duty.

For the final third of that line? Hardman? His path to the NHL took a far more winding route. Passed over three times at the NHL Draft.

His skating? Too much of a question mark, the thinking went.

But that path did take him to his NHL destination. Not being a draft pick he had to take the free-agent road and sign an entry-level deal with the Chicago Blackhawks this past March. Being drafted would have been nice. Having a contract is far better.

Now Hardman has taken another road to put himself back in Chicago. But having already been on that sort of journey, an AHL assignment does not faze the 22-year-old whatsoever.

Fortunes change quickly in hockey, and Hardman can testify to that.

Hardman was in the midst of a 39-goal season with Junior-A club West Kelowna of the British Columbia Hockey League three years ago. That performance failed to convince an NHL club to spend even a late-round pick on him at the 2019 NHL Draft. As 2020 neared, Hardman started to gear up for the second half of his freshman season at Boston College, one of college hockey’s premier programs. And a year ago, 10 goals in 24 games at Boston College as a sophomore playing with Boldy and Newhook finally attracted the sort of attention from NHL clubs that had eluded him before.

If NHL scouts held his skating against him, he did have a pro-ready frame going for him at a sturdy 6-foot-2, 204 pounds. He owns a quality shot that he is quite willing to use freely, and he amassed 59 shots in those 24 college games last season. And he managed to parlay an Oct. 17 recall from Rockford into nearly two uninterrupted months in the NHL, a 19-game run in which he picked up two assists and averaged 9:32 of ice time per game.

Eventually Chicago management sent him back to Rockford on Dec. 12. But the Hawks saw enough from Hardman and think highly enough of him to station him on a top Rockford line with 2020 first-round pick Lukas Reichel and Alex Nylander, another first-round pick.

“It’s exciting to be back down here and kind of play a bigger role, play in all situations, and be able to play with two really good players [in] Lukas and Alex,” Hardman said. “[I am] just really excited for this opportunity.

“I think your first full year of pro is a learning process. Being down here, it’s good for my career. It’s good for me. It’s getting to play in all situations and playing with really good players. The basic thing is just get a lot more touches, play the power play, play on the penalty kill, and play in situations where I wouldn’t find myself up there. So I think I can now bring that down here and just get my confidence up and play a bigger role.”

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

Lately COVID-19 has hit the Rockford roster hard, Hardman included. But in his limited action since returning, Hardman has taken quickly to that expanded role. He piled up 12 shots through his first three AHL appearances after returning from the Hawks and contributed a goal in a 3-2 road loss to the Texas Stars on Dec. 18.

He took that same listen-and-learn approach with the Hawks.

“When I was up there, it was a great experience as well, Hardman began. “Getting to talk veteran guys [who] have been in the league for a while, won Stanley Cups. It’s a learning process, and you’re just being a sponge out there, talking to coaches, and seeing what you can do to become the best player you can possibly be.

“Up there, I had a role where I was physical and making simple plays and playing a north-south game, but I think I have more to offer offensively. The biggest thing defensively up there, so many players can score. So I think playing a really good defensive role as a bottom-six forward is what can make me a consistent NHL player.”

Building that defensively responsible game that NHL head coaches demand while incorporating a more offensive bent is Hardman’s challenge in Rockford.

Striking that balance is “probably the most difficult part about pro hockey,” Hardman acknowledged. “I think down here I can be a top-six guy [who] can score and make plays, but up there I’m going to have to play physical and be a reliable forward.

“But I think I can blend that in. I think that’s why being down here is so important. I think I can bring the physicality down here, but also play with skilled players” like Nylander and Reichel.

“It’s a work in progress, and I think I can bring the whole side to the NHL.”

But as much as Hardman looks forward, he still remains connected to those players who have helped him on his journey. Along with Boldy and Newhook, he had Logan Hutsko and Spencer Knight of the Charlotte Checkers as Boston College teammates. The group can now trade stories and advice as they all try to navigate their first full seasons of pro hockey.

“We’ll be friends forever.”