Milwaukee rookies make transition easier

by Mike Placko || AHL On The Beat Archive 

Imagine you leave behind friends and family, move to a new city, face off against grown men, and carry the high expectations of an organization on your shoulders.

For Jonathon Blum, Chet Pickard, and Colin Wilson, first-round draft picks from the 2007 and 2008 NHL drafts, these are the pressures they face every day.

For these Milwaukee Admirals rookies, this change has been a little more comfortable. Not only do they have fellow high draft picks to accompany them as they begin their professional careers, but friends they have had for years to help them along.

Pickard and Wilson have been connected ever since their minor hockey days in Winnipeg. Pickard moved to the area when he was 9 years old and was Wilson’s teammate until they were 14.

“We grew up playing together, our families are really good friends,” Pickard said.

Wilson and Blum were also friends before coming to Milwaukee. The two played together at USA Hockey events beginning when they were 14.

For Blum it’s funny to think of how their journeys would be linked together.

“We were young (when we first met), who knew we’d see each other down the road?”

The friendship triangle was completed when Blum got to know Pickard as they squared off as two of the top prospects as juniors in the Western Hockey League.

“When you play against a guy six or eight times a year you start to figure out who he is,” said Pickard.

The pair really became close after they were drafted. The Nashville Predators selected Blum with the 23rd pick in the 2007 draft and the following year took Pickard with the 18th overall pick.

The pair’s closeness doesn’t stop Blum from reminding Pickard about their first encounter.

“I scored my first Western Hockey League goal on him. I had two goals on him that game,” Blum said. “I still rip on him sometimes.”

All three experienced tremendous success in their amateur careers. Blum, the Vancouver Giants’ all-time leader in assists, took home WHL and CHL defenseman of the year honors in 2009. Pickard also received recognition for his play, winning back-to-back WHL goaltender of the year awards in 2008 and 2009 for the Tri-City Americans. He also was named the top goalie for the entire CHL in 2009.

Wilson chose a different route, attending Boston University where he won an NCAA championship last season. Wilson was also named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, college hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

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Now the trio is together in the Brew City, experiencing pro life together for the first time. A life that has changed drastically since they have become professionals, as Blum can attest to.

“You’re on your own here,” he said. “You’ve got to pay bills, you’ve got to make your own food, but it’s nice. There’s no curfew. They treat you like adults here.”

Even though the change away from the ice has been dramatic, the group agrees that adjusting to the pace of the professional game has been a more difficult transition to make.

Coming from leagues where they were always a step ahead of the competition, Blum says the playing field here is much more level.

“You come from juniors where you’re one of the smartest guys on the ice. You come here where everyone’s just as smart or smarter, faster, bigger.”

Wilson agrees, noting there is little room for error.

“There are a lot more talented guys and they’re faster,” Wilson said. “If you make a mistake it’s going in your net.”

Although the change in pace is difficult to adjust to, Pickard points out it isn’t something he hasn’t experienced before.

“My first game in juniors was really quick too,” he recalled. “My first year was quick and then I settled in.”

As they work their way through their first professional season they realize there is something their older teammates have that they don’t: experience. They look to the Admirals’ group of veteran leaders, led by Nolan Yonkman. Pickard credits Yonkman with helping the rookies feel comfortable with the rest of the team.

“Everybody’s really close on this team. It’s the first team I’ve been on that everybody really enjoys being around each other and enjoys going to the rink and I think it starts with our leadership. Yonks is pretty good with that,” he said.

Pickard also notes, “There are a lot of guys I look up to. There are a lot of good guys on this team.”

Even though the Admirals have great leadership and a close knit team every player is going to have ups and downs throughout his rookie season and having friends along the way can certainly ease any worries a player may have.

“You’re a little bit more comfortable coming to the rink when you know the guys,” said Wilson. “It allows you to adapt socially.”

Not every rookie coming into the pro game is as fortunate and Blum realizes how helpful it has been to have Pickard and Wilson with him on this journey.

“It’s nice to be that close with each other and really have their support.”

For most people, it may be difficult to completely understand the transition these guys have made, but for them that’s just fine. They have two friends that already know it.