Much like the Chicago Blackhawks, the Rockford IceHogs, their AHL affiliate, have a focus on the development of young players this season. The amount of budding talent on the roster will result in many firsts for guys who are chasing a dream.
Through just two games in the 2020-21 AHL campaign, the IceHogs have had players record their first goals and points as professionals in each contest. While the AHL is part of the process that is molding talent for the NHL, these firsts are memories that will never be forgotten.
A pair of Rockford forwards who created lasting memories for themselves and their families are D.J. Busdeker and Chris Wilkie, who both tallied their first AHL goal in the team's 5-2 loss to the Chicago Wolves on Tuesday afternoon.
For Wilkie, his first AHL goal comes with the third NHL organization he's been apart of. The Omaha, Nebraska native spent time at the University of North Dakota and Colorado College before the Florida Panthers selected him in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Draft. Wilkie was involved in the 2019 trade with the Ottawa Senators that sent Jack Rodewald to Florida. Rodewald was one of the players involved in the Instagram messaging scandal with Brendan Leipsic. After the transaction, the Senators were unable to sign Wilkie, which made him free to sign wherever. The former Tri-City Storm (USHL) scorer inked a one-year deal with the IceHogs prior to this season.
The terms of Wilkie's contract don't allow the Blackhawks to recall him, so it acts as an AHL-only stint. However, Chicago may offer an entry-level deal to the 24-year-old if they so choose. After scoring in bunches during his time in the USHL and at Colorado College, Wilkie seems to have the ability to do the same at this level. After all, the first one is the hardest to get.
Busdeker entered the OHL as an undrafted signee of the Saginaw Spirit in 2016 and has been improving ever since. The Dexter, Michigan native saw an increase in goals in each of his four seasons with Saginaw, topping out at 22 goals to complement a 57-point season in 2019-20. The constant improvement landed him a two-year contract with Rockford that he signed in April of 2020. The 21-year-old was also loaned to the ECHL's Indy Fuel in December of 2020 where he recorded four points in seven games.
Dating back to Busdeker's Saginaw days, he served as part of the team's leadership group, sporting the "A" for his final two seasons with the Spirit. Upon his departure from the OHL, members of the Saginaw franchise had plenty of great things to say about the Michigan-born winger. This includes their general manager Dave Drinkill, who complimented Busdeker's professionalism and commitment to the Spirit. Although he may not have the brow-raising accolades, his ethic and hunger have translated into success at high levels of hockey.
Wilkie and Busdeker have seen their first bits of action in the AHL and while there may be growing pains and developmental stages, the pair of forwards have lit the lamp for the first time in what are hopefully long, successful careers not only within the Blackhawks organization but in professional hockey as well.