By Scott Tittrington
Pensacola News Journal
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Sometimes, it pays to be a little selfish.
As a former first-round draft pick by the Chicago Blackhawks back in 1968, John Marks wants nothing more than to see his former organization — one of the “Original Six” in the NHL — return to prominence on the ice.
Now, he’ll have the chance to help make it happen.
A little more than a month after being named coach of the Pensacola Ice Pilots, Marks and his bosses officially announced Thursday an affiliation agreement between the ECHL club and the fabled NHL franchise for the 2007-08 season.
The agreement — which also includes the Rockford (Ill.) IceHogs of the American Hockey League — gives the Ice Pilots two new partners to replace the New York Islanders and the Bridgeport Sound (Conn.) Tigers, who decided not to continue the affiliation agreement they inked with Pensacola prior to the 2006-07 season.
“Once you have that Indian head (logo) on your chest … once you’ve been involved with the organization as long as I was, it just feels good to again be part of the organization,” said Marks from his summer home in Moorhead, Minn. “I want to see the success in Pensacola, but deep down inside, I want to see the Blackhawks have the success they had in the past.”
Unfortunately for Chicago hockey fans, the recent past has not been much cause for celebration. Last winter the Blackhawks finished with a 31-42-9 record and amassed just 71 points, tied for 12th in the 15-team Western Conference. Part of the reason for the struggle has been an ownership decision to embark on a youth movement following on the heels of the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season.
While that could remain bad news for hockey fans in the Windy City for the foreseeable future, it could also be a boon for the Ice Pilots. Chicago had seven selections in last month’s NHL Draft — including the No. 1 overall pick, used on winger Patrick Kane. With such a reliance on nurturing young talent, chances are several prospects will be farmed out, not just to the top minor-league club in Rockford, but Pensacola as well.
“You need an affiliate that does have a lot of young guys and needs to see how they’re going to perform,” said Ice Pilots general manager Greg Schuh, who targeted the Blackhawks “from the get-go” and kicked the negotiations into high gear once Marks entered the fold.
“If they’re going to send you one of those guys who is highly thought of, they want to make sure he has the tutelage. … (Because of Marks) they’ll feel comfortable knowing any player they send here is going to have the right coaching and playing style.”
Schuh expects the parent club to begin making decisions about an initial group of players it will place in both Rockford and Pensacola in coming months, followed by another influx in October once roster cuts begin to take place during the Blackhawks’ training camp.
Once here, it’s up to Marks and assistant coach Phil Russell — also a former Blackhawks player — to mold them into a club capable of improving on last season’s 20-46-2-4 record that was the worst in the ECHL.
Of course, should that be a success, it likely means good things eventually will be in store on the shore of Lake Michigan.
“Hopefully, myself and Phil Russell and the rest of the Pensacola Ice Pilots organization can help those players to the level they want to attain, and that’s the NHL,” Marks said. “I’m very excited about this, very excited to be back with Chicago.”