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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 11, 2020
The easy road to Chicago was never open to Matt Highmore, not now and not as a hockey player with an NHL dream.
The 24-year-old forward just finished a 2,600-kilometre drive from his home in Dartmouth to Chicago where he has rejoined the Blackhawks, the team that signed him as a free agent three years ago after no one else gave him a chance.
"In March I flew home,” Highmore said of his pandemic travels. “I just wanted to get home as fast as possible but then I rented a car to get back down here.
"It was a two-day drive back to Chicago. It was a bit of a hike but it was the best way to do it."
Considering the career route Highmore had to take on his hockey journey, the tedious solo drive was nothing. After starring in midget with Dartmouth and entering the QMJHL as a first-round pick (eighth overall, 2012), he was on the right track to the NHL.
He went on to post 247 points in 289 games during his five seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs, improving his output from nine points as a rookie to 89 as an overager. But even with that success and his positive trajectory, Highmore was never drafted. The closest he got were free-agent tryouts with the Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers.
It wasn’t until two weeks before the end of his 20-year-old season that someone finally gave Highmore a concrete opportunity. The Blackhawks signed him to a standard entry-level contract in March, 2017 and that’s when he went to work.
He appeared in 64 games with their AHL affiliate, the Rockford Icehogs, in 2017-18, producing 24 goals and 43 points. He also devoted more attention than ever to his defensive game, calculating that his odds of earning a promotion would be better if he could prove his value on both sides of the puck. It all paid off with a 13-game call-up that year that featured his first NHL goal in his sixth game against the Boston Bruins.
"It's never an easy path no matter how you look at it,” he said. “People have done it a bunch of different ways. The biggest thing I've taken away is to never give up and work hard for everything you want. If you do that, you'll be rewarded in some way or another."
After shoulder surgery robbed him of all but 12 AHL games in 2018-19, Highmore started this past season back with the IceHogs where he was an alternate captain for a second straight year. He appeared in 21 games in Rockford before getting called back up to the Blackhawks for 36 games. He had six points and averaged nearly 10 minutes of ice time per game before COVID-19 shut down the league.
"Playing that many games, I started to feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Being there longer and playing more gave me a bit more confidence as we went along. It was a great year and definitely a good step in my career. Hopefully I can keep building on it.
"My role is to try to create energy for our team, whether it's getting in on the forecheck or even just to make a defensive stop. They just want me to be reliable defensively and when the chance comes, put the puck in the net as well."
Thanks to this season’s solid stint in Chicago, Highmore received the ultimate affirmation on April 2 when the Hawks signed him to a two-year contract extension. The second year of the deal is a one-way arrangement, which means he will be paid his NHL wage no matter where he’s playing in 2022-23.
“That was a nice vote of confidence,” he said. “Lots of things can happen between now and then so you never know. But it's certainly nice to have. Just to get the deal done was the big thing. I wanted to stay here and be part of this organization.
"It was just nice to get that out of the way. You never want to think about that kind of stuff during the season but when it's your contract year you can't help but think about your future. I'm really happy to be back in Chicago for two more years."
With his future more secure and the NHL working its way back to live action, Highmore is on the verge of another major milestone. Assuming the league’s return to play plan works out, the Hawks will play the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five playoff round, which would be the first post-season action of his NHL career.
"Two years ago in the American league we went to the semifinals,” he said. “But other than that this will be my first playoff hockey as a pro. It's exciting but it's also one of those things where all you can do is wait and see. We'll be excited to play whenever that happens but time will tell."
For now, Highmore and the rest of the NHL are waking up each morning to find out what the day holds.
"Everybody around the league, each team does it a bit differently but there will be skates here with proper social distancing and low numbers. But we do have an opportunity to get on the ice and work out.
"Look, all of the players are excited to play but we obviously don't know when that's going to be yet. But whenever that turns out to be, we're certainly all glad we get to play some hockey."
And when the time comes to play in real games again, Highmore said he will be ready.
"I was home for three and a half months, quarantined like everyone,” he said. “I was able to work out at home so that was nice. I just tried to do my thing throughout it and keep myself ready.
"When the rinks opened a few weeks ago, that was my first time back on the ice. I just did it the safest way possible. We had a pretty good group of guys, whether they were junior players or some other professionals. We were able to get on the ice and get a good feel for the puck.
"Obviously after three months I certainly had to knock the rust off but whenever we do get to play, I'm ready to go."