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Steel's Blackhawks Night suits Blues backer

Chicago Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk aims a T-shirt cannon at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, during the Chicago Steel's Blackhawks Night game against the Lincoln (Nebraska) Stars.
Chicago Blackhawks mascot Tommy Hawk aims a T-shirt cannon at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, during the Chicago Steel's Blackhawks Night game against the Lincoln (Nebraska) Stars.

Chicago Steel forward Austen Long hardly was Blue during the club's Blackhawks Night on Saturday.

The Steel held meet-and-greets with two-time Stanley Cup winner Daniel Carcillo and mascot Tommy Hawk as part of their celebration of Chicago hockey at Fox Valley Ice Arena. In addition, renowned vocalist Jim Cornelison stirred the season-high crowd with his rendition of the national anthem.

Long, a fan of the Blackhawks' rivals, the St. Louis Blues, took everything in stride.

"I like Andrew Shaw on the Blackhawks, too," he said.

Long backs the Blues because their captain, David Backes, attended Spring Lake Park High School, north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Long began high school at Spring Lake Park before junior hockey took him away from home.

Long is finishing high school at Geneva alongside fellow forward Jake Nielsen. Long lives with the Neri family in Geneva.

Backes, of course, travels throughout North America with the Blues, but stays in touch with his roots. Long and his former teammates have skated with Backes during summer visits.

"He's a nice guy. … It's pretty nice to have him come," Long said.

The 'attainable' USHL: If his player development goes as swimmingly as scouts and executives foresee, every night could be Blackhawks Night for Dennis Gilbert in a few seasons.

Drafted by the Blackhawks in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft after a solid season with the Steel, Gilbert now is a freshman defenseman for Notre Dame.

Speaking before the Irish lost to Michigan in an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal in Cincinnati, Ohio, last week, Gilbert contrasted the playing styles in the United States Hockey League and NCAA Division I.

"I think the USHL is definitely a pretty high pace, but college is a little bit faster," Gilbert said, "whether it's puck movement or guys' physical speed. But I mean, you see Kyle Connor right now for Michigan, he's probably the best player in college hockey, and he just dominated the USHL last year. So I think it's a little faster, but it's not by much."

Gilbert contributed four goals and 23 assists in 59 games for the 2014-15 Steel, representing the club in its last season in Bensenville before the organization moved to Geneva's Fox Valley Ice Arena last summer.

Gilbert still follows the Steel on Twitter and said last season's group text is "still buzzing once in awhile."

One of his fellow Notre Dame defensemen, junior Justin Wade, attended Batavia schools growing up, and Gilbert hopes the opportunity to play high-level junior hockey isn't lost on young fans watching the Steel in Wade's old stomping grounds.

"It's a very high-skilled game. It's a lot of fun. There's hits, there's fighting," Gilbert said. "And it's not guys that are 30 years old; it's guys that are in high school.

"I think it's much more attainable for kids to want to go to those games, to say, 'I want to be a Steel player one day.' … So I think going forward, kids going to games, it's a good experience for them just to see guys that aren't far in age from them. Yeah, they might be six, seven years older, but they're not in the NHL making six million dollars a year. They're high school kids playing hockey, and it's just as fun to watch."

• Kevin Druley is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or kdruley@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinDruley.

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