Jared Nightingale (#6) defends the area in front of Jason LaBarbera’s goal
photo: Todd Reicher, 1/20/14, Rockford IceHogs
By Chris Block
Last week the IceHogs finally named a team captain. They waited until only 53 percent of their season had passed to do so.
Jared Nightingale, 31, was named Rockford’s captain on January 14th. He becomes the 8th captain of the IceHogs since the organization joined the AHL in 2007.
“Teddy (Dent) had called me a couple nights before he announced it to the team,” Nightingale said in a conversation with TheThirdManIn.com on January 18th.
“Obviously I was honored. I was excited to take on that role.”
The previous IceHogs captains are Martin St. Pierre (2012-13), Brian Fahey (2011-12, 2nd half), Brandon Segal (2011-12, 1st half), Garnet Exelby (2010-11), Jake Dowell (2009-10), Tim Brent (2008-09) and Jim Fahey (2007-08).
The decision to name a team captain in mid-January came as a bit of a surprise.
When asked on January 3rd (eleven days before this announcement came down) if he had plans to name a team captain anytime soon, IceHogs head coach Ted Dent responded to us, “No.”
After a follow up question, Dent explained his January 3rd position.
“We don’t have a guy right now that I think, or that we think, can fill those shoes,” Dent said after a shootout loss to Iowa on Jan 3rd.
“With all the change, and influx of people coming in and out, trades and things like that, we’ll just stay status quo, as is right now.”
A strange response in hindsight considering Jared Nightingale was an active member of the IceHogs on that day. Nightingale has missed just one game this season for Rockford, a November 29th game at Allstate Arena against the Chicago Wolves. That absence was explained as a coach’s decision. Rockford had extra bodies at the time and Nightingale was getting the night off.
Heading into this weekend’s action, which is a 3-in-3 set with all three games to be contested against the Milwaukee Admirals (Friday and Sunday in Milwaukee, Saturday in Rockford), Nightingale has appeared in 42 games this season. He’s posted 1 goal and 3 assists to go along with 85 penalty minutes and a team-worst minus-13 +/- rating.
This past week, Dent changed his tune.
“Well, you just go with your gut,” Dent told us. “I think this is basically our team (now). I don’t think we’re going to get anyone else from the Blackhawks, coming down, for any significant amount of time. We just felt it was the right time.
“Nighty has done a great job with the guys. I just thought it was time.”
The only discernible change to Nightingale’s game over the course of this year is he’s been able to stay out of the penalty box this month. During the first couple months, he took some bad, or unnecessary penalties. Nightingale’s PIM total is inflated by 5 fighting majors, most on the IceHogs. He’s also collected three 10-minute misconducts, two for continuing an altercation and one for verbal abuse of officials.
Dent said he was never approached this season by players or a veteran about naming a captain.
“No. No one did at all,” Dent said. “It wasn’t an issue at all.”
Nightingale signed an AHL contract with the IceHogs on July 22, 2013 (at least it was officially announced that day). He was a non-roster invite to Blackhawks training camp in September but was reassigned to Rockford on September 17th, six days after camp opened at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.
There has been some speculation that Dent was awaiting Brad Mills return to the lineup, upon which Mills would be named captain. There’s a problem with that theory, however. Mills has been out with a foot injury he sustained while with the Chicago Blackhawks. He suffered a broken bone and has not played since. Mills, though, is a favorite of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and a likely candidate to be recalled to Chicago after Mills gets back into action and proper game shape. Another issue with Mills filling a traditional team captain’s role, even if he were to stick around in Rockford, is that Mills is more of a lead-by-example, soft spoken guy.
How, why, or whatever changed, the guy who rose to the forefront in ultimately filling the role was Nightingale. He’s an every game player who isn’t going anywhere. Nightingale is not under Blackhawks contract and quite a few dominoes would need to fall before they would potentially turn to him. He’s also stepped up in the IceHogs locker room of late, and has become a more prominent voice amongst a group larger comprised on young, inexperienced prospects.
Nightingale wavered when asked this past weekend of the importance of there being a chief captain in the locker room.
“You know, I’ve been on teams… when I was in Hartford, we didn’t have a captain for a year. Wade Redden was on our team. We were kind of waiting around for a year and a half and finally they put the “C” on his jersey. And we had a really good team that year. I don’t think that’s sometimes relative.”
“But I think it is good for a team’s identity,” continued Nightingale. “People are always asking who the captain’s going to be, or whatever. But nothing changes in the locker room. I don’t change. The coaches don’t change. You’ve got to stay the same, as I was before.”
Still, the IceHogs are largely inexperienced as a group which is partly why it was surprising Dent didn’t see fit, or see a fit, to name a captain until more than halfway through the year.
When you eliminate veteran regulars Nightingale, Skinner, Peckham and Winchester – the average age of IceHogs skaters is 22.5. And several of the guys who log key minutes for the team are in their first pro season.
“I think it’s very important to have a collective group of leaders and experienced guys,” Nightingale says. “It’s pretty rare how young are group is. And we’re pretty spoiled with the guys that we do have, the older guys are all character guys. Guys like Wade Brookbank. He doesn’t play every game, but just his example around the rink speaks volumes. And you can’t really put a price on that.”
For the time being, veteran forward Brad Winchester and second-year North American defenseman Klas Dahlbeck will serve as alternate captains.
Dahlbeck, 22, said he is proud to wear an “A” on his sweater.
“Yeah, of course. It’s a huge honor.”
“Maybe I’m not the loudest guy out there. But I try to show everybody, lead by example by working hard every day.”
Dahlbeck wasn’t surprised to learn Nightingale named captain.
“Nighty has kind of stepped up during the whole year as kind of a leader,” said Dahlback. Getting the group together in a good way. And he’s just a great person and it feels really good to have him as a captain right now.”
Winchester (who turns 32 on March 1st) is a year and a half older than Nightingale and has 188 more games experience than the newly-named IceHogs captain. Winchester has skated in 414 NHL games, while Nightingale has spent his entire pro career in the American Hockey League.
When Dent declared in early January that he didn’t have anyone he felt could fill a team captaincy role, that seemed to be a not-so indirect shot at Winchester.
Wade Brookbank is the most experienced, and oldest Rockford player. But Brookbank sits more games than he plays, so he isn’t a candidate to be a captain.
Theo Peckham, 26, (337 pro games, 160 in the NHL), has been out of shape all season and guilty of undisciplined at times. He’s a guy people on and around the team like, but he’s not a lead from example type player. Brett Skinner, 30, came to the IceHogs in late November on a 25-game professional tryout contract that expires this coming Sunday.
Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin are the longest-tenured IceHogs but their status as potential NHL recalls keeps them from captaincy positions. Though, that’s a story for another article.
Since his arrival in Rockford, Winchester has seemed to struggle with his position within the Chicago Blackhawks organizational depth chart. His quick dismissal from Hawks training camp apparently caught Winchester by surprise.
Once the season began though, Winchester didn’t do much to disprove the Hawks. In eleven October games, Winchester posted 2 goals and 2 assists. It wasn’t until after he was designated a healthy scratch for a November 30th contest, did Winchester’s season turn around. To date, he has accumulated 12 goals and 9 assists in 42 games. His minus-9 trails Nightingale (-13) and Alex Broadhurst (-10) for third-worst on the team. Winchester has been a valuable contributor since his one-game benching. He’s used mostly as a left wing, who can also play some center and take faceoffs. He’s also made much better use of his 6’-5” 230 pound frame these past two months.
Winchester signed a one-year, two-way free agent contract with the Blackhawks this past summer. From the beginning it was believed Winchester was brought in to provide some veteran leadership on the AHL squad, while also being a backup option on the NHL roster should Brandon Bollig be injured or fall out of favor for whatever reason. Still, perhaps Winchester thought there would be more of a true competition for a Hawks roster spot in training camp.
The Hawks agreed to a deal that pays Winchester $175,000 to play in the AHL this year, according to data listed at CapGeek.com. His NHL deal pays at a rate of $550,000, slightly less than Bollig’s. Bollig is in the final year of his current contract, which this season is a one-way deal, meaning he would make his NHL money no matter where he plays.
A University of Wisconsin graduate, and current Madison, Wisconsin resident, Winchester also chose the Blackhawks because of their, and Rockford’s proximity to Madison. It’s especially convenient for Winchester since he and his wife had a newborn child this off season. He maintains a second residence close to the BMO and commutes from Madison when he can.
Nightingale is a Michigan State University product. The Cheboygan, Michigan native spent four years with the Spartans, playing in 156 games while tallying 2 goals and 21 assists over his collegiate career. While at Michigan State, Nightingale was briefly a teammate of future Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith. The two played on the same Spartans squad during the first semester of Nightingale’s freshman season, Keith’s sophomore. Keith left Michigan State midway through the season for the Kelowna Rockets of the western Canadian junior hockey league (WHL).