📝 by Patrick Williams
This past Saturday for the Rockford IceHogs had already long shaped up as an eventful, busy day, even by American Hockey League norms.
For the first time since March 6, 2020, the IceHogs would welcome fans to BMO Harris Bank Center. Like so many teams across the hockey world, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the IceHogs to play home dates without fans in 2020-21.
Those fans would be welcomed into an upgraded home rink in downtown Rockford that underwent extensive offseason renovations, including infrastructure upgrades and a new ice plant. Those renovations had prompted a six-game season-opening road trip for the IceHogs, and they were the final AHL club this season to host a home opener. What’s more, top prospect Nicolas Beaudin had returned from the Chicago Blackhawks that day, a key addition for the Rockford blue line. With the Grand Rapids Griffins in town, the IceHogs would be back on the ice after a week between games.
Then came a phone call from Chicago for IceHogs head coach Derek King. A 1-9-2 start for the Blackhawks, including a 5-1 road loss to the Winnipeg Jets in their most recent contest, had cost head coach Jeremy Colliton his job.
Would King be interested in the Chicago head-coaching position on an interim basis?
King recalled the conversation. “I was like, ‘Wow, okay? Sure. I’ll do it. Why not?’”
And with that, King headed off to Chicago — three years to the day after he had been named the interim head coach in Rockford when Colliton had left Rockford for the Blackhawks job.
The promotion capped a long path for the 54-year-old King, who had also served parts of three seasons as an assistant coach in Rockford as well as six seasons as an assistant with the Toronto Marlies from 2009 to 2015. That followed a 17-year playing career that included 830 games in the National Hockey League and four seasons in Grand Rapids, two of them as a player/assistant coach.
King’s exit also meant the IceHogs needed a replacement that same day, and the organization turned to assistant coach Anders Sorensen as the new interim head coach in Rockford.
A meeting with the dangerous Griffins is not what any team needs, least of all a team dealing with a game-day coaching change, and the visitors took the Rockford home opener, 2-1. But Rockford rallied the following afternoon behind a hat trick from 2020 NHL first-round pick Lukas Reichel and 34 saves from goaltender Malcolm Subban to slip past the visiting Manitoba Moose, 4-3.
Certainly Sorensen inherited a complex situation. Along with the struggles in Chicago, the IceHogs have 11 rookies, plus defenseman Isaak Phillips and forward Reese Johnson on NHL recall. Sorensen and his club had to put aside any potential excuses.
“I think that they were focusing on the game, focusing on getting better, and focusing on winning hockey games and getting [themselves] up to the NHL,” Sorensen said of his players.
On Sunday night, the Blackhawks took a 2-1 overtime win against the Nashville Predators in King’s NHL coaching debut. The plain-spoken, self-effacing King’s personality will be familiar to Rockford alumni now in Chicago.
“I just I want these guys to feel relaxed,” King said. “They’re tight. And so I think my personality is going to come in, just let them just take a deep breath, and go have some fun. Get back to the game we’ve loved to play since we were five, six years old. It hasn’t changed. You might be making a little more money now. But it’s just time to go back to playing good, solid, hard hockey and have some fun.”
King made a quick impression on long-time NHL forward Brett Connolly, who was assigned to Rockford to start this season.
“[King is] a good guy and really got through to his players here,” Connolly explained. “Guys really respect him, and I think the guys in Chicago will do the same.”
Sorensen, a development coach in the Chicago organization for parts of five seasons, shifted to an assistant-coaching role with the IceHogs midway through the 2018-19 season. Taking over in Rockford puts Sorensen back in charge of a pro bench for the first time since an interim head-coaching role with Sodertalje of Sweden’s second-level Allsvenskan for part of 2013-14.
What are the IceHogs getting with the 46-year-old Sorensen in charge now?
“I feel like it’s been similar,” Subban said. “I feel like [King and Sorensen are] pretty similar and preaching the same stuff. It’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
Added Connolly, “There’s going to be some tough love, I think, moving forward. I think him and [King] are very different personalities. Like anything, it’s a good opportunity for [Sorensen] as well to showcase what he can do as a head coach, and I’m sure he’s excited about that. He’s the guy now.”
“Kinger, obviously he was the head coach,” Connolly said. “But Anders had a lot of input on the power play and certain situations, and he was very vocal on a lot of things. So, I think it was a fairly easy transition for Anders to come in and be the head coach, because he was doing a lot anyways. I feel like [King and Sorensen] were just kind of a little team there working together.”
Part of the veterans’ job involved maintaining a calm environment amid that change this past weekend. And going forward, too.
“There [was] a lot going on that day, there’s no question,” Connolly said. “The American League, it’s a unique league, where guys are getting plucked from your lineup every night. You’ve just got to go in there and play. We just [tried] to make sure guys were ready to play.”
Blackhawks interim general manager Kyle Davidson also “definitely” plans to add an assistant coach in Rockford.
“I think we’ve got a great support staff down in Rockford through our development group,” Davidson said, “but I think in terms of [being] hands-on with the players, we want to be working with them every day. You need bodies for that.”
Seventy-five minutes to the east from Rockford, King harbors no illusions about the challenge that he is undertaking in Chicago. It also appears that he will take the same blueprint he used in Rockford with him to the NHL.
“It’s going to be demanding, getting back to where we want to be,” King said. “But we’re also going to make it fun. There’s nothing wrong with working hard and having fun, but we’ve got to do it together. And that was my message.
“We’ll take it a game at a time, a day at a time. Then we’ll just keep moving forward.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.