The 2019–20 AHL season came to a bitter end on Monday, as the league made the decision to shut down the remainder of the season, including the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertain future ahead. For the Rockford IceHogs, it means an abrupt end to a potential postseason run with just over a dozen games remaining on the schedule. As such, the IceHogs finish the year with a 29–30–4 record, good for 62 points in 63 games played to land in fifth place in the AHL Central Division based on points percentage.
On Tuesday, IceHogs head coach Derek King and team captain Tyler Sikura addressed the cancellation of the season and the outlook for the league and the team ahead in dual conference calls.
For King, the finish to his first full season as a head coach was a disappointment.
“I liked where we were at coming down the stretch,” King said. “We had our heads above water and I felt like a playoff spot was in our reach. Overall, I’m upset the way things ended, but I’m really happy with the way we played this year and really proud of our guys.”
After taking over the reigns of the IceHogs last season after the firing of Joel Quenneville and promotion of Jeremy Colliton, King was able to have a full offseason at the helm this past summer and came into the year with high hopes for the IceHogs.
“We dealt with a lot of injuries this season, I don’t know why,” King said. “But, I liked the way our guys battled through those all year. I said this year that our team was too dumb to quit. We just kept battling. I’m proud of our guys and when we get to doing these exit interviews, everything is going very positive from me to them.”
With the NHL season still potentially resuming, King spoke about which players surprised him this season, and who he believed might make a rumored expanded 30-man NHL roster for the Chicago Blackhawks if or when the season begins again.
“You’ll get a chance to see guys who were up there when the season was put on hold like Brandon Hagel (and) Lucas Carlsson,” King said. “You have Dylan Sikura that could still go up and MacKenzie Entwistle, too, that played big roles for us this year. Defensively, you can look at a guy like Dennis Gilbert. There’s plenty of bodies available for (Chicago), but who they might take, I’m not sure.”
King went on to mention a number of rookies who stood out to him this season, including Entwistle, Hagel and Kurashev.
King noted that he feels like a healthy Kurashev can be an NHL player in one or two years.
“He acts like a pro, he plays like a pro, handles himself like one,” King said. “He has a chance to be a special player.”
One of the more interesting storylines for the IceHogs this season was carrying three healthy goalies on the active roster for most of the season.
“We were skeptical early on whether we could pull off a three-goalie rotation,” King said of the trio of netminders. “We felt it was the right thing to do for our team, though. We felt all three guys deserved to be playing in the AHL and be getting that level of competition.”
As far as the rotation of the goalies, King said he left that fully up to goaltending coach Peter Aubry.
“Pete did a great job with them all season,” King said. “We would talk about who’s ready to go and hash it out; I don’t think once this season we had a time where I said, ‘Let’s go back to another guy,’ that we weren’t planning on going back with. For the most part, Pete had his hands on the whole thing and he did a great job with them.”
The IceHogs were able to benefit early on in the season from the trio of goalies. When Delia was off to a slow start, Lankinen and Tomkins were able to hold their own. When Delia re-emerged at the top of the depth chart, and Lankinen went down with injury, Tomkins stepped in again and found success behind Delia.
The IceHogs went through a number of roster changes this season, but none may have been a bigger blow than the early retirement of Versteeg. Coming back to the Blackhawks organization after reviving his career in Europe, Versteeg joined the IceHogs on an AHL contract and looked like he was back to his prior NHL form as he played through Chicago’s training camp.
Versteeg was named Rockford’s team captain prior to the beginning of the season and was poised to be a veteran mentor and possibly lead the IceHogs’ offensive attack. Six games into the season, Versteeg aggravated a lower-body injury, missed games and eventually came to the decision that he could no longer perform to the level that was expected of him, choosing to leave the team in November.
Stepping up in the role of team captain was veteran winger Tyler Sikura. On and off the ice, Sikura led the young IceHogs roster and enjoyed a bounce-back year on the ice.
“The situation with Kris wasn’t easy and making the move on from him being part of the team was unexpected,” King said. “It was a little unfair to Tyler, too. Here we were saying, ‘No, you’re not going to be the captain,’ to, ‘You’re the guy now.’ It wasn’t easy for him at first. But, wearing a letter or not, (Tyler) was always a leader for us and a mentor to the younger guys. It was a no-brainer at that point to make Tyler the captain.”
Sikura ended the 2019–20 season as the IceHogs’ team leader in points, tallying 14 goals and 20 assists while playing in all 63 games.
Though proving to be a bounce-back year for Sikura, it ended without the full realization of a season and team that could have had something special.
“As a player, you still held out hope that something could have been done to finish the season,” Sakura said. “You want to see a finish to what you put so much hard work into, but there are bigger things than hockey right now. We felt like we had a team that could go on a nice run late in the year—we were getting healthy and getting guys back at the right time—just unfortunate to not have a chance to see what we could have done.”
After dealing with injuries in the 2018–19 season, Sikura put together a solid season with the IceHogs in 2019–20, making the end to the year easier to handle for him personally.
“It’s a bit easier to swallow knowing that I was able to have the kind of year that I did,” Sikura said. “Last year, I wasn’t able to find a groove and wasn’t able to be the player that I know I could be. I have confidence in myself and this year proved to me that I know what I am capable of. It was encouraging for myself.”
Speaking from a player’s perspective, Sikura is in the boat of wanting to get back to the ice as soon as possible and would have been in favor of finishing the season over the summer if the AHL had come to that decision.
But, now officially in offseason mode, Sikura is like many players, displaced from their team facilities and trying to piece together a summer workout routine at home.
“I haven’t been able to skate since the season was put on hold,” Sikura said. “This time has to be up there with the longest I’ve gone without being on the ice. Luckily, most everyone is in the same boat, so you just have to navigate how your workouts are going to look.”
Sikura added the biggest thing for him is being creative with workouts and being able to do a little bit every day just to keep his sanity while waiting to get back on the ice.
Off the ice, Sikura has been a leader for the team and for the local Rockford community. He led a team-orchestrated GoFundMe campaign for Rockford-area healthcare workers to help them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It wasn’t surprising to see the response from the community to the GoFundMe,” Sikura said. “The fans are very loyal to their community and we are very happy and grateful to those who have donated. It helps with the sense of helplessness that I’ve felt at times during this, and, even if it’s just online, it’s important to help people who need it the most.”
This season, Sikura has been a standout in the Rockford community and a leader in the IceHogs’ locker room. But, with an AHL contract expiring this summer, the future is not as clear of a picture for Sikura as in past years.
“This time away from the game has given me some perspective on my career and my life as a hockey player,” Sikura said. “I know the 2020–21 season will happen at some point, so knowing that I will get to play hockey for a living again is something I am grateful for. I don’t know where that will be at this time, (but) that is something I’ve been dealing with year-to-year being on one-year contracts. But, you just have to tune those things out and control what you can control.”
Sikura has been a key player in the IceHogs’ successes over the last three seasons, and was rewarded heading into the 2018–19 season with an NHL contract.
Sikura has yet to make his NHL debut in his career and says his goal is still to make the NHL with whichever team can give him that opportunity.
“Rockford has been great to me over these last three years,” Sikura said. “It’s a first-class organization and you get treated like you are an NHL team. I’m still looking to make the NHL and I want to play where I have the opportunity to do that. I would love for it to be with Chicago, but that is a decision I’ll have to make when it is time. Right now, I’m just hanging tight and focusing on what I can control.”
Even with his future up in the air, Sikura is staying vocal with teammates and staying in contact while they have been away during the season stoppage.
Sikura talked about players staying in touch through social media and through team group chats over text messaging, saying that team massage therapist Mike Harling continues to send the team riddles over the group chats, much like he does during the season on his whiteboard in his therapy room.
“It’s hard when everyone is spread out,” Sikura said. “You don’t feel like you got the chance to maybe say goodbye to guys who you might not get a chance to play with again.”
The AHL faces an unclear future ahead. The COVID-19 virus continues to halt all major professional sports for the time being, with leagues like the MLB, NBA and NHL trying to piece together options and plans to start or finish their seasons in some capacity.
For the AHL, dropping the hammer on the remaining 2019–20 season and 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs was a tough, but necessary, decision, given the logistics of the league. The possibility of returning in October is still on the table for the AHL, but seems unlikely that fans will be allowed to attend sporting events by that time.
“If that’s what we have to do, it’s what we have to do to get back,” King said of playing in an empty BMO Harris Bank Center if play resumes without fans. “Hopefully it’s not long before fans could make their way back into the arenas, but it will be weird, very weird.”
In a league where ticket sales and fans in the building means so much to each organization’s bottom line, it seems unlikely the AHL will be able to come back to action, at full capacity, until fans are able to attend games again. The league is working toward options to begin as early as October, but is also preparing for a start to the 2020–21 season as late as December according to league President and CEO Dave Andrews, who is retiring this summer.
However and whenever the AHL, and sports in general, are able to come back, there needs to be a semblance of safety for the health of the players, coaches, team officials and event staff alike before anyone can envision returning to “normal.” While that return seems to be getting closer, it is still anyone’s guess.
Until then, stay home, stay safe, stay well.