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Life-long love of hockey drives Pirri

by A.J. Atchue || for

Like many kids from the Toronto area, Brandon Pirri grew up watching the legendary Don Cherry and the rest of the Hockey Night in Canada crew as his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs took the ice on Saturday nights during the winter.

And while Brandon’s rooting interest had to change once he became a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, it might not be too long before he’s the one earning attention from Cherry and other high-profile media types.

“My parents have told me that I was walking around the house holding a mini-stick almost all the time when I was little,” said Pirri. “And then once I was able to start skating, they had a pretty good idea that this is what I wanted to do.”

The 19-year-old Pirri gradually built himself up from those mini-stick days at home to his current position of rookie center on the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, one step away from the NHL.

He began his professional career on a four-game scoring streak and checks in with five goals and four assists through 21 games for the IceHogs while playing on numerous line combinations due to injuries and recalls.

Pirri has also excelled in the shootout, converting on four of his five opportunities and scoring the decisive goal twice.

“Puck possession is a huge part of the game now, and I think I have very good vision with the puck,” Pirri said. “I’m trying not to force things and be able to hold on to it for that extra second and move it to a teammate who has an open seam.”

After his relatively hot start, though, Pirri entered a stretch where he totaled just three points in a 10-game span as opposing defenses began to adopt more of an aggressive style than had previously been seen against him and Rockford’s other top threats.

It’s resulted in an adjustment period, but Pirri appears to be turning a corner.

“He’s really matured as he’s gone along here probably in the last six games or so, figuring out the plays that do work, ones that don’t work, things that are available on the power play, and how much time he does actually have,” said Rockford head coach Bill Peters.

“Brandon has real good vision and is more of a playmaking center, makes his wingers better. If you can get him with the right wingers and a hot offensive guy, he’s going to get him the puck in good spots. He makes a lot of subtle plays in the offensive zone where he ends up putting the puck on the stick of the right guy at the right time.”

After the Blackhawks scooped him up with the 59th overall draft pick in 2009, Pirri enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., to begin the 2009-10 season.

While his offensive abilities spoke for themselves on the Engineers – he led the team with 32 assists and finished second with 43 points in 39 games – he most credits his lone collegiate campaign with giving him the opportunity to build up his body strength in preparation for a pro career.

“(RPI) has such a physical part to their program, and you play so few games that you can really focus on getting your body right,” Pirri said. “Going there and working out and learning how to do certain exercises, it really trains your body so that you can be more explosive on the ice, keep guys off your back and not turn over the puck as much.”

Ultimately, Pirri determined that the one-year college experience had provided him the necessary tools to make the next jump, and as far as introductions to pro hockey go, you’d be hard pressed to top his.

After attending his first pro training camp, Pirri was assigned to Rockford to begin the season. But when an early injury to star forward Patrick Sharp opened up a spot in Chicago, Pirri got the call.

The game in which he made his NHL debut? None other than the Blackhawks’ home opener on Oct. 9 in front of a charged-up United Center crowd ready to celebrate the team’s first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.

Welcome to the National Hockey League.

“It was just incredible and so special,” Pirri said. “They had the red carpet out, the raising of the banner, all that stuff. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. You’re just in absolute awe of all your surroundings.”

Pirri was assigned back to Rockford the next day and has used the first two months of the AHL season to adjust to the many differences in the pro game, not the least of which is conditioning for an 80-game schedule with increased travel instead of the 39 contests he suited up for at RPI in 2009-10.

Like many developing forwards, quality play in the defensive zone was quickly identified as an element of Pirri’s game which required more consistency.

He’s gone to work at it, and the results are starting to show.

“I’d say there’s been a noticeable improvement,” Peters said. “He’s got much more pride in the little things in the game, takes more pride in his face-offs, and that’s gotten to a very high level. The overall maturation in his game has been noticeable here in the last two or three weeks.”

Rockford’s game at Houston on Dec. 3 marked a good example. Clinging to a 2-1 lead late in the third period, the IceHogs faced an important defensive-zone face-off. Peters sent Pirri out to take the draw and protect the lead, something the coach likely would not have done in the season’s first few weeks.

But the 6-foot, 180-pound Pirri won the key face-off this time and Rockford held on to win.

“Working on my defensive game has been huge,” Pirri said. “It’s come a long way, and I’ve been given the opportunity to get some quality minutes at late times in games by our coaches. I’m just trying to make the most of it and be a consistent two-way player.”

He’s also preparing to make the most of another opportunity, one which has national pride attached as a bonus. The rookie was one of 40 players invited to attend Hockey Canada’s evaluation camp next week for the World Junior Championships, which will be held in Buffalo beginning Dec. 26.

Pirri will leave Rockford this weekend for his native Toronto looking to earn a spot on Canada’s national squad.

“When you grow up in Canada, everyone’s sitting around the TV on Boxing Day watching that first game and throughout the tournament,” he said. “It’s an honor. If I do make the team, I’m going there to win a gold.”

Pirri is one of many young forwards in the Blackhawks’ system, a group which also includes Jeremy Morin, Evan Brophey, Ben Smith and Kyle Beach, who was drafted 11th overall in 2008.

Peters cites the presence of this healthy competition for NHL recall opportunities amongst his younger forwards as important to each one’s motivation and continued development in Rockford.

“(Brandon is) on the right track for sure,” Peters said. “I think coming out of school has accelerated his development, and I think the size, strength, speed of the American Hockey League has been an eye-opener for him, and obviously it’s then another jump to the NHL.

“It’s been a good learning experience, and I expect big things from him moving forward.”

Added Pirri: “It starts here with every one of our games, and I’m looking to become a consistent player here in the AHL. It’s a very strong league day in and day out, but I think if I play well and stick to my game, I’ll be given an opportunity.”