Eddie Olczyk's first real exposure with the ECHL came about a year ago, but he's been impressed by the talent in the sport's only AA-level league.
"There’s no doubt there’s a lot of guys in this league that can compete in the American League, for sure," Olczyk said. "Guys want to play and have the dream of getting to the next step and getting to the next level so I would encourage anybody if you have the opportunity to play in this league."
Olczyk is a member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame after a 16-year playing career that included stops with the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers, winning a Stanley Cup in 1994. The Chicago native is currently a hockey color commentator for NBC Sports and Blackhawks games. He was in attendance at the TaxSlayer Center Friday night to watch the Quad-City Mallards beat the Indy Fuel 4-3 in a shootout.
Olczyk's son, Tommy, plays for the Fuel after playing last season with the Alaska Aces.
"This is my first time here, and it’s a beautiful venue, a great crowd tonight. … That’s awesome," he said.
When Olczyk was drafted by the Blackhawks in the first round of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, the ECHL didn't exist. The league was founded in 1988 and has provided valuable talent and exposure for the sport. In its 30 years of existence, 630 former ECHL players have gone on to play in the NHL, six of whom made their debuts last month.
"It’s not just a feeder for players. Trainers, coaches, managers, front office, it’s needed," Olczyk said of the ECHL. "It’s an opportunity for people to get close to their teams in small communities. ... That’s how you get the game to be more popular, not just at the NHL level, that’s easy, but I think it’s important when kids play, and they can continue to play."
Olczyk has been a champion of youth development in the U.S. since his playing career ended with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2000. After spending two seasons as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Olczyk has been head instructor for Blackhawks’ youth hockey camps. In 2011, the Blackhawks and their charities established the Eddie Olczyk Award, which assists young players and teams in Illinois that need financial assistance.
According to the Blackhawks' website, the award has distributed over $255,000 in grants to 114 individuals and seven organizations.
Olczyk recognizes the importance of the ECHL and how it provides an opportunity to continue to expand the sport in the U.S.
"I think the more teams and leagues you have, the more exposure you’re going to have, and it becomes a trickle-down effect," he said. "We live in a fast food society, we see it, we want it, we want to go there, we want to buy it. So the more hockey you hear about, the more hockey you see, I think we can get young people involved and thinking ‘Holy cow, that’s a great environment, that’s something I want to be a part of.’"
Olczyk’s presence was more than just an opportunity to watch his son play. It also gave him a chance to catch up with Mallards team president Bob McNamara, whose father, Gerry, was responsible for acquiring Olczyk from the Blackhawks in 1987 when he was general manager of the Maple Leafs.
Olczyk remembers the trade well and thinks the decision may have been the best thing for his career. In his first season with Toronto, he scored a career-high 42 goals and finished with 116 goals and 151 assists before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets in 1990.
"For me, I was crushed because I loved my hometown, but I felt I left all the pressure in the world at home and I went to a place like Toronto and I played arguably, you can look at my stats, a pretty good 3 1/2 years with the Maple Leafs," he said. "It’s funny how things work, and to get a chance to see Bob, it’s been great and just a pleasure to be here and talk about old times and his dad and playing with the Leafs."
The game also gives Olczyk a brief reprieve from a battle with colon cancer. He announced he had been diagnosed with the disease in August and has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments, of which Olczyk said he's a third of the way through.
"I’ve had my good days and my bad days, and if anybody’s ever been touched by it or seen it or knows it, chemo’s pretty rough," he said. "I’ve had incredible support. The Blackhawks have been incredible, and the NHL, my family, my friends, the hockey and horse racing community, it’s just amazing."
He still calls some games for NBC Sports and some Chicago Blackhawks games but is also willing to talk about the disease in hopes of helping others take initiative on their own health, no matter the issue.
"It’s hard; it’s the first time we’ve ever been touched by cancer, but I want to try to be a role model and an inspiration to somebody out there, whether it’s a 40-year-old guy that isn’t feeling good and doesn’t want to go to the doctor, hey, you know what, it’s OK to say something," he said. "I’m scared, still scared, but I think that’s only normal, but I’m just going to keep grinding it out."