Chicagoland’s premier junior hockey program has produced numerous NHL draft picks
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI – During the last three seasons, no other team in the United States Hockey League (USHL) has had more success than the Chicago Steel.
One major reason for that: Ryan Hardy.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Steel
The third-year general manager came in and transformed the Steel into a junior hockey powerhouse. The organization, now in its 21st season, is having its best three-year stretch ever. Under Hardy’s guidance, the Steel have a record of 116-39-8-2 (as of April 26). This season, the squad is 38-11-3-2 (as of April 26) and has won back-to-back Anderson Cup championships, which is awarded to the team with the best regular-season record in the USHL.
“In all three of my years, we’ve had a great group of kids that have a tremendous passion for their development and through that process and through the coaching staff we have and their collaboration, we’ve been able to have tremendous success in those three years,” Hardy said. “We’ve had a lot of players come through our program. On April 19, NHL draft analyst Bob McKenzie put out a list of top 100 NHL prospects for this draft, and we had six in the top 100, three first rounders and the first overall pick. We’ve been able to build something pretty special here in Illinois and our hope is to continue to build our brand and for local kids and local families to see that out here in the western suburbs we have this amazing thing that everyone in Chicagoland and all of Illinois should be proud of.”
Hardy has done an admirable job of changing the team culture during his tenure.
“I would say the biggest pillar we have is just investing in the development of our players, so everything is about individual development inside the collective and it’s not just as players, but as people through mentorship,” Hardy said. “We have kind of a mentorship arm; we have a mindset company we partner with to work with the kids as their confidence wanes in different areas. Then we have significant investments in on-ice player development where we do isolated skill sessions each morning with a company that we track with that partners with our coaches. It’s kind of a holistic development philosophy that looks at developing the whole person. They’re just impressionable kids in the ages that we get them, and then just developing them as players.”
In last October’s NHL Draft, eight former Steel players were selected. This year, Hardy said closer to 10 players will hear their names called by NHL teams. The Steel organization takes a lot of pride in its team and individual successes.
Owen Power, an 18-year-old defenseman from Mississauga, Ontario, has been pegged by McKenzie as the top pick in this year’s NHL Draft. He played two seasons, 2018-19 and 2019-20, with the Steel and showed his raw talent.
A couple other Steel players currently on the roster this season that are slated to go in the first round are forwards Matt Coronato and Mackie Samoskevich. Hardy called Coronato a relentless scorer who is versatile, while Samoskevich is a fast and dynamic player with the puck on his stick. Josh Doan, son of former NHLer Shane Doan, should also be a high pick this year.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Steel
The players who make their way to the Steel organization have similar dreams of playing in college and hopefully professionally as well. Hardy wants to give the players the resources and the environment to accomplish those lofty goals.
Hardy is very selective in the players he adds to the team. He has certain characteristics he values more than others.
“We want smart, competitive kids that love hockey and want to be coached,” Hardy said. “We feel like if we can check those four boxes, we can pretty much figure out the rest with them, if they have that foundation.”
When players are added to the Steel roster, they come in with loads of talent. Hardy and his staff strive to make them better players on the ice and better humans off the ice. Turning players into top draft picks isn’t something the organization focuses on with its players, that just becomes a byproduct of success.
“Each individual player comes in with a certain set of strengths and weaknesses and I think our main priority is to allow what makes them a great player to shine through,” Hardy said. “So, let their strengths be their strengths and give them information or teachings to enhance those strengths and then at the same time look at the areas of opportunities for them to grow and have a frank conversation of, ‘OK. Love what you’re doing over here with this, this and this. To get to where you want to go, we got to work on this, this, this and this.’ Sometimes that’s on ice and sometimes that’s off ice with our strength coach. Sometimes that’s mindset, mentality. Sometimes that’s emotional maturity. It could be anything.”
The Steel — which play out of the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva — are approaching the Clark Cup playoffs, which get underway April 30. Hardy is excited that the arena is at 25% capacity for games and that fans will be allowed for the playoffs.
The team has a small but loyal following, noted Hardy.
“It’s definitely grown in the three years that I’ve been here,” Hardy said. “We have a group of season ticketholders and you know their faces and you know their names because you see them all the time.”
Hardy has a little advice for aspiring players, their parents and coaches as far as player development. He pinpoints utilizing the four attributes he looks for in a player: hockey sense, competitiveness, love of hockey and the desire to be coached.
“I think if every player focuses on those areas every day and every parent is operating in support in the development of those four areas — and part of that is probably being a good teammate, as well — and then all the coaches take from us the idea of investing in each individual player,” Hardy said. “If you look at our team and the way we play, we change our lineup pretty much every night. We always move guys around; we never pigeonhole kids. It’s just finding the balance of team success and development, and we’re believers in team success is a byproduct of the investment in the development of our individual players and the results have really spoken for themselves the last few years.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.