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Young defensemen ready for the big league

Playing professional hockey may not exactly qualify as a “normal” job. But for two of the youngest players on the Chicago Wolves roster, starting their American Hockey League careers has brought about some natural challenges.

Defenseman Joel Edmundson, a second-round draft choice of the St. Louis Blues in the 2011 National Hockey League entry draft, has spent the two years since being drafted playing for the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors and Kamloops Blazers. The 20-year old did a quick stint in NHL training camp in September before landing with the Wolves.

“I think there are expectations that come with being here for sure,” he said. “And you want to meet those. But having been in St. Louis for a month and being around the older guys and seeing how fast the game is at this level really helped my confidence a lot. It’s not even necessarily the pace of the game that’s a challenge, but everyone is so skilled. Everyone is the best player in these leagues. It’s different for sure, and there are high expectations, especially with John (Anderson) being here, but I think we all play better with high expectations.”

His counterpart, defenseman Jani Hakanpaa, agrees. The 21-year old, selected by St. Louis in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, skated in 14 contests for the Peoria Rivermen last season after completing his second year with the Blues of the Finnish Elite League. He proved to be a quick study on the American Hockey League stage, at least as far as team bonding goes.

“There are things you pick up that make things go more smoothly,” he said. “The biggest thing is when we’re on the ice, we have to talk as much as we can and help each other out. That’s how you get better as a team and you feel like you’re playing as a team. To do that, when we’re off the ice, we want to hang out with each other and get to know each other better so when we’re on the ice you know the guy who is next to you on the ice and you know he’s a good guy and you want to help him out even more and do everything you can for him.”

It’s that type of camaraderie and togetherness that got Edmundson through the ups and downs of the Wolves’ opening weekend. After a thrilling victory over the San Antonio Rampage on Oct. 4 to start the year the team dropped their second game to the Texas Stars the next night. Through the growing pains though, the Brandon, Manitoba native sees fixable mistakes and a growing chemistry.

“I thought we started off hot (in San Antonio) and it slowly started going downhill a bit against the Stars,” he said. “By the end (of that game), I don’t think anyone was impressed with his game. There are a lot of things we need to fix, but I think we’ve been doing a lot of that in practice this week and it’s going to help us play some good hockey going forward. This is a good group of guys, and a group that likes each other. We’re getting on the same page.”

“It’s always exciting to be playing in your first game of the season,” Hakanpaa added. “For me, it was my first game with the Wolves and that was really cool. I was excited. Right off the bat I felt we did really well and played a great first period of hockey all together so to have that under our belts was a good way to start the season and it gives us something to keep progressing from.”

Along with being the first weekend in a Wolves uniform for many players, it was head coach Anderson’s first weekend in five seasons as the team’s bench boss. Even though the young defenders are somewhat new to the AHL, they were anything but in the dark about Anderson’s legacy in Chicago and the heft his signing carried.

“When they announced John was going to be the head coach here, I did some Google research on him so I would know a little bit about him,” Hakanpaa said. “I became aware of his history and what he had accomplished. Then he was coaching us in Traverse City (at the invites camp in September) and I got to know him a little bit there. He’s a guy who wants to teach and makes us understand not just what we should be doing, but why we should be doing it. He really wants us to execute at a high level and he’s encouraging. I like his style a lot.”

Known for his offense-minded approach to the game, Anderson’s coaching has already had an effect on Edmundson’s game as he builds on the goal he was striving toward during his final season in the WHL.

“I think my offensive game has taken a few strides forward,” he said. “Last season I started slow on that side of things but then I got traded to Kamloops and when I was traded it started to take off. I was happy about that and I wanted to continue on that path this season. I feel like I’m doing that already. Coach always tells us to win our own battles and focus on getting better. And it always comes back to work ethic and just doing as much as we can at all times to be successful.”

As for Hakanpaa, he’s succinct in his goal-setting, but his focus is firmly planted on the same thing as the 28 guys he shares a locker room with.

“For me, it’s just about winning and helping this team win,” he said. “I want to use my assets to do that the best I can. And hopefully we go all the way.”