Blackhawks draft picks travel any number of roads in their efforts to catch the attention of the organization and reach the NHL one day. The Canadian major-junior system offers an immersive, near-professional playing schedule and has been a traditional choice over the years, especially among players looking to unleash their offensive potential. Those looking to develop in North America have another option, one that’s markedly different from junior hockey: the NCAA, which has produced a growing assortment of NHL standouts over the years.
That’s where two of the brightest stars in the Blackhawks system are honing their craft this year: Notre Dame’s Vincent Hinostroza is enjoying an impressive start to his freshman campaign for a storied program that’s trying to find its feet in a new conference, while Boston College’s Kevin Hayes is discovering his versatility, posting excellent numbers and eyeing another championship run to cap off his collegiate career.
Blackhawks fans are familiar with the Hayes name: Jimmy, Kevin’s older brother by three years, was a draft-day acquisition from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010—the same day Kevin was selected 24th overall—and played 43 games in a Chicago sweater before being traded to the Florida Panthers earlier this season. Kevin was on skates at age 2, thanks to his maternal great-grandfather and the hockey pedigree that runs through that side of the family. Cousins Tom Fitzgerald and Keith Tkachuk enjoyed long NHL careers, and watching them at a young age gave Hayes similar ambitions.
Hinostroza, a sixth-round pick in 2012, grew up in Bartlett, Ill., an hour outside Chicago, and was introduced to skating at age 3 by his father and cousin. He joined his first team at age 4, then progressed through the ranks of Illinois youth hockey until 2010, when he ventured west to join Waterloo of the United States Hockey League.
Both players are offensively gifted, with Hayes projecting as a skilled power forward and Hinostroza showing playmaking flashes similar to his admitted idol, Patrick Kane. And, according to Senior Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley, who has guided the Blackhawks at the draft table since 2008, both players possessed something extra that caught the eye of the scouting staff.
“Vinnie was a very competitive kid with very good character [when we scouted him],” Kelley said. “Every time you went to see him play, or even if you were watching somebody else play, he always was the one who caught your attention and really took over the game.
“Kevin also had very good character, very good work ethic and a strong family background. We’d gone through this process with Jimmy two years prior [even though we didn’t draft him], so we had a little bit of an advantage when Kevin came along.”
“Character” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in scouting meetings, reflecting the organization’s dedication to bringing in prospects who have it, regardless of skill level or draft position. Scouts are therefore instructed to gather as much information about who the prospects are as people as how they play.
“The character in the United Center locker room is so strong that we want to find players who can match that,” Kelley explained. In other words, raw talent abounds and skills can be refined, but it’s how players mature and adjust at each level of the game that dictates their progress toward the NHL.
Prospects who choose the college route are often making a commitment to not just hockey, but also the NCAA’s academic guidelines and the self-reliance necessitated by campus life. On the ice, there’s a significant leap in the level of competition, especially for teenagers entering their freshmen year, who find themselves battling 23- and 24-year-olds every game. Both Hayes and Hinostroza welcomed the myriad challenges as a logical step in their respective careers.
“Coming from the Boston area, you watch the Beanpot and see the success and tradition that Boston College has,” Hayes said. “After watching my brother go there for two years, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
The year before his freshman season, the Eagles won a national championship, adding to the legacy that Hayes has chased eagerly since arriving at BC. Between Jimmy and a glut of familiar faces from the New England talent pool, there was a support system in place from day one.
“The physical aspect of it was more challenging,” Hayes said. “Coming out of high school hockey, there was definitely a culture change. I was always the best player on my high school team, so the biggest change was going up against bigger and stronger guys.”
It wasn’t until Hayes’ sophomore season—and a 19-game win streak for the Eagles that culminated in another NCAA title—that he felt entirely comfortable with his game. He took that confidence into his junior year, but was sidelined by a serious leg injury late in the season that required four surgeries and kept him off the ice for over four months.
“It was a pretty tough experience, and it made me realize how important this game is to me,” Hayes said. “I spent a lot of time in the weight room with the trainers and our athletic staff at BC, so I owe a lot to them—the rehab was a big reason why I've been successful this year.”
Successful is maybe putting it lightly when describing the offensive numbers Hayes has recorded: 51 points (22G, 29A) in 34 games through the regular season, third in the entire nation; linemate Johnny Gaudreau paces all college skaters with 64 points. Bill Arnold, who rounds out the dominant trio, ranks sixth with 44 points. Their strength lies in the alchemy of their individual talents: Arnold’s size and defensive awareness, Gaudreau’s speed and skill and Hayes’ ability to cycle down low and find passing lanes.
“We're a hard line to match up against because you can't really focus on one player—there are two other guys who can lay you out,” Hayes said. “We're also best friends off the ice. We've been buddies since we got here, and we don't really get mad at each other, so that makes it easy.”
Gaudreau’s highlight-reel plays are writing headlines, but Hayes is blossoming into the power forward that the Blackhawks have always envisioned him as—albeit at wing rather than center.
“We knew when we drafted Kevin that we had a special player,” Kelley said. “But we also knew that we had to be patient. What we’re seeing and what BC is seeing from him on the wing is how strong and how powerful he can be, especially along the boards and in confrontations.”
If the physical element of college hockey once felt daunting for Hayes, who was listed at 6 foot 2 and a tick over 200 pounds as an 18-year-old freshman, one imagines the change was even more drastic for the diminutive Hinostroza. In fact, he delayed his college entrance for a year to focus on strengthening his 5-foot-9 frame during a third season with Waterloo.
“The funny thing about Vinnie is that when we drafted him and brought him to our development camp, he was ready for college hockey then,” Kelley said. “Notre Dame’s feeling was that he needed to get bigger and stronger. The extra year in the USHL helped him physically, but he was ready for college hockey. That’s obvious this year.”
Hinostroza burst out of the gate in his freshman campaign, logging three goals and nine assists in his first 10 games—a 7-3-0 stretch for Notre Dame—before a knee injury sidelined him for three weeks in early November. In his absence, the Fighting Irish went 2-3-1.
“I obviously wanted to work hard and do everything I could every day, whether it was riding the bike or doing upper body [exercises], so that when I did come back, I could continue to make an impact for my team,” Hinostroza said. “I didn't know if I was going to make it back in time for tryouts for World Juniors, so it was a huge accomplishment, being able to overcome the injury and play.”
Hinostroza was a late addition to Team USA’s training camp in mid-December, where he joined Notre Dame teammate Thomas DiPauli and Chicago’s 2013 first-round draft pick Ryan Hartman; all three played Midget hockey with the Chicago Mission during the 2009-10 season and found themselves reunited for a common cause.
“When we were kids, we never imagined where we could be,” Hinostroza reflected. “All you think about is playing in the NHL; you never think about the steps you have to take. We've all gone our separate ways the last few years, so it was really cool that we got to be together for a few weeks, see how everyone has changed and just bond again.”
At the World Juniors tournament in Sweden, Hinostroza played a depth role, but saw plenty of time on the power play, collecting five points (3G, 2A) in five games before the Americans were bounced in the quarterfinals by eventual bronze-medalist Russia. That was Jan. 2; the next day, Hinostroza and DiPauli were on a plane to Boston, where Notre Dame would face BC the following evening in the first conference showdown since realignment united the two teams in Hockey East.
Oh, and the game would be played outside at historic Fenway Park, home of the championship Red Sox, with a national television audience. No pressure.
Hayes and the Eagles emerged with a tense 4-3 victory in frigid night air and choppy ice conditions. Hayes collected two assists, one for each of his linemates, who accounted for three of BC’s four goals. Hinostroza was held without a point, but was on the ice late in the third period as Notre Dame pushed for an equalizer.
The Fighting Irish struggled through an inconsistent stretch after the Fenway game, but closed out their schedule with four consecutive victories, including a statement 2-1 overtime win at BC on the final day of the regular season, handing the Eagles their first conference home loss all season. Hinostroza scored the winning goal, capping off his impressive freshman output 28 points (7G, 21A) in just 28 games, third-best for Notre Dame.
Hayes has encountered little resistance all season, and he accumulated 27 points (13G, 14A) over a career-long 12-game point streak from Dec. 6-Jan. 25, including his first hat trick—part of a five-point night—on Jan. 18 against Maine. He also put in an MVP performance for the Eagles as they won their fifth straight Beanpot title in February, netting the game-winner in a 3-1 win over Boston University and opening the scoring in a 4-1 victory over Northeastern in the final. BC has title aspirations, and Hayes will need to keep producing on the top line to help his team reach the Frozen Four for the second time in three years.
The Blackhawks make it a point to stay in constant contact with club prospects, with development coaches offering pointers and scouts dispensing feedback, so it’s no surprise to the team what Hayes and Hinostroza have achieved so far this year. But players are also expected to shoulder a lot of responsibility themselves, and both have a clear-eyed view of the work that still needs to be done.
“Right now I'm just trying to make a positive impact out there for the team, scoring goals and getting assists,” Hinostroza said. “Working hard off the ice, that's still the main thing I need to do—give my body time to develop.”
Hinostroza says his parents instilled a strong work ethic in him at a young age, which will serve him well at Notre Dame, where the new rink, facilities and equipment are there to aid him in his physical development. Hayes, meanwhile, recalls some advice bestowed by his brother about making it to the NHL: “Find your role, and allow the coaches to know exactly what you're going to bring. The biggest thing he told me was to be consistent—you can't take any nights off.”
Although the ultimate goal of a second championship has not yet been realized, Hayes is able to reflect on his incredible season so far. “I'm happy I came back for my senior year; it's been nothing but fun,” he said. “I love the guys on the team, and I want to get my degree from Boston College.”
A BC-Notre Dame showdown in the Hockey East tournament—held in Boston from March 21-22—isn’t out of the question, and it would allow Kelley and his staff to evaluate the promising pair head to head once more. After Hayes graduates, he’ll likely join the ranks of other Blackhawks prospects in Rockford, all of whom have forged their own paths toward the ultimate goal of making the NHL; Hinostroza should make his own way there in the next few years, ready to work.
“Both of them are gifted offensive players, players who have an impact on the game and we project will have an impact on Blackhawks games,” Kelley said. “They have the ability to be skilled players in the NHL—I could see the two of them playing on a line together some day.”
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