CHICAGO—One of Dylan Strome’s first calls after he was traded to the Blackhawks last November was to Alex DeBrincat, one of his best friends.
The first chirp upon his initial walk into the Hawks locker room came from Brent Seabrook, whom Strome never had met.
“He yelled I was late for practice,” Strome recalled with a chuckle. “You kind of feel at home, like part of the team. When you have some pretty impressive players talking to you and giving you tips and see what they do away from the rink, it makes you feel more comfortable. That you can do it, that you can be part of something special here in Chicago. That’s what you’re trying to work toward.”
The immediacy with which Strome established himself as a vital member of the Hawks can be traced to that welcoming environment created by veterans Seabrook, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. But all new players are wrapped in a bear hug when they arrive.
Feeling comfortable didn’t wipe away three years of uncertainty that had built up since the Arizona Coyotes drafted the Mississauga product with the No. 3 pick in 2015. It didn’t erase withering tweets declaring him a bust at age 21 after scoring just 16 points in 48 NHL games. And it didn’t put the puck in the net.
But it helped.
“(I played) 40-some-odd games in Arizona, and that just wasn’t working,” Strome said. “You start doubting yourself and start thinking you can’t do it anymore. Now it’s just the opposite to where I know I can do it.”
One of the first things the Hawks did was tell Strome it was OK to find an apartment. That might seem like a small thing, but the impact was enormous. Getting the go-ahead to get an apartment meant he wasn’t in Chicago on a tryout basis and wasn’t at risk of getting sent to the minors.
It meant Strome had a real home. During his three brief stints with the Coyotes, he never moved out of the hotel the team put him up in.
“I remember when he called me and told me (Chicago GM) Stan Bowman had told him to get a place in the first two days he was here, and he was over the moon and thrilled,” said Ryan Strome, Dylan’s older brother by four years who plays for the New York Rangers. “It goes a long way toward making a player feel comfortable and feel wanted.”
Strome couldn’t have been transported into a better environment if he had orchestrated it himself, and the dividends came quickly. He had a goal and an assist in his first game with the Hawks and never went more than five straight games without a point the rest of the season.
He finished the season with 51 points in 58 games with the Hawks after scoring just six points in 20 games with the Coyotes before the trade. His addition to the Hawks power play helped turn one of the worst in the NHL into one of the most effective.
“Once he got traded, I thought this was the best situation he could be in,” Ryan Strome said. “You get to learn from some future hall of famers and you have a familiar face in Alex and an Original Six market and one of the best sports cities in the world. There was a lot of positives, and he was able to take it and run with it.
“I was proud. I remember watching the first game against Vegas and he scored and I was fired up watching it on my couch. I’m like, he’s just going to get rolling from here, and he kind of did.”
Strome spent the summer doing all the things you might expect from a hockey rat. He took a few weeks off, including to attend Ryan’s wedding, but most of it was spent on the ice.
He went to the world championship with Team Canada for a month, worked out in Chicago during most of July and August and attended a weeklong camp that skills coach Darryl Belfry runs in Florida.
Strome was at Belfry’s camp at the invitation of Kane, who also brought DeBrincat. Kane has a clear affection for Strome, whom he refers to as “The Stat Man.”
“If you need a stat about a hockey player or something, he’s always going to give it to you,” Kane said. “If you’ve got an interesting stat, you might ask him or tell him about it. He usually knows it too. He’s always looking at that stuff, which I always enjoy talking to him about.”
Kane and Strome also know how to have fun with their hockey obsession.
“The last couple days Kaner’s been making Dylan text me to try to get a picture of (Rangers rookie) Kaapo Kakko’s curve because they want to see what curve he uses,” Ryan Strome said. “I’ve been in the dressing room trying to find his stick and take pictures for them. That’s their quirkiness.”
A lot is riding on Dylan Strome being able to repeat last season’s success. He is going to centre the second line again and will be an essential part of the power play as the Hawks try to end a two-year playoff drought. Strome becomes a restricted free agent next summer and could be in line for a sizable raise.
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Less than a year after worrying if he would have any NHL career at all, Strome is on the cusp of becoming a star.
“I love playing hockey,” Strome said. “I love having fun. I love being around the guys. I’m a loud guy; I try to make jokes and have fun. But at the same time I feel like I’m a pretty serious guy at games and practices. I feel like I know when to keep it honest and keep it real and try to keep it light at the right times and have fun with the young guys.
“I remember when I was at my first couple (training) camps, I was pretty stressed out and pretty nervous and not really myself. So I feel like if there’s one thing I regret, I would go back and have fun, be myself. But maybe I wouldn’t be here then. So everything works out for a reason.”