The newest team in the ECHL, the Chicago Express, will be celebrating its first full season shortly. The Express is currently 29-26-7-4 and still have the potential to earn a Eastern conference playoff berth in their premiere season. The team plays at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, an hour from downtown Chicago. They have just 4 home games left on the regular-season schedule for this season; if you're in the Chicago area, go out to a game!
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Team captain Nathan Lutz was the first player signed for the Express. He also serves as an assistant coach for the team. Lutz, a defenseman, has played for a variety of teams across several leagues, including the Milwaukee Admirals, Rockford IceHogs, and the Manitoba Moose. Lutz took time this week to talk with HB about the team's first year and his career.
What brought you to the Express?
I knew the owner [Craig Drecktrah] and coach [Steve Martinson]; I played for both of them before, so it seemed like a good fit for me. I know the area; I played in Milwaukee for two years, and Rockford for three years, so it seemed like a good fit.
Did you have any goals for you/the team to start the season and have you achieved them?
The goal is to put a good team on the ice and win a championship. So right now, it's been tough going a little bit, but we still have a chance to make the playoffs. That's our goal right now.
How is being both a player/Captain plus assistant coach different in terms of what you have to do to prepare or you're doing in the locker room?
It's a little bit more responsibility. I have a little more to do with systems and stuff like that, trying to get the younger guys together and everybody on the same page. It's been different, but I think it's gone well.
Who was your favorite team growing up?
Is there any particular player(s) you model your own style of play after?
Not really... just trying to do my thing, everyone's different. I'd like to just do what I'm best at, so I don't really model myself after anybody.
Give the opportunity, which NHL player(s) would you most like to take the ice with or against?
I'd like to take the ice with a couple guys from Nashville. I used to play with Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne [with the Milwaukee Admirals, AHL], and seeing them now, you know, doing so well, it'd be amazing to play with them again. They're both fantastic players, and just some of the best guys I've met in hockey, too.
What happened in the 12/22 game at Cincinnati that got you 25 PIM?
There was kind of a line brawl, and I was actually the only one that didn't fight in the line brawl, and I got kicked out. I don't really understand why that happened.
You've played in the UHL, European leagues, CHL, and now the ECHL. How has that shaped you as a player? How is the ECHL different than some of the other leagues?
I've gotten to play at a lot of different levels and seen a lot of hockey, so I've tried to take whatever I could from each experience. The ECHL is a good league, top AA league, so I'm usually the oldest guy on the ice every night. It's young players, and top prospects. It's a good league, a fast league, and I can still keep up with the young kids.
ECHL teams are a mix of prospects, full-time ECHLers, and the occasional "rental" player. As a Captain and assistant coach, how do you address the challenges of a constantly changing roster, especially with a lot of changes in goal for your team this year?
Who's the funniest guy in the locker room?
Not even close... I'd say Scott Wietecha.
Who's in charge of the locker room music, or movies on the team bus?
Music, I'd say Wietecha; movies ... Mike Embach.
Any of the team on Twitter?
Unfortunately, yes. [big smile] I know there's Deeds [Devin Didiomete] (@deeds2424), Chaz Johnson, Wietecha [@ScottWietecha3], Kyle Ostrow, Embach [@MEmbach], other than that, not sure¹.
I'm not on it. Maybe I'm older and out of the loop, I'm not really in on all the technology upgrades. I've got my phone from about 10 years ago and all these guys have their iPads and things. It's a little different than what I would do, but I'm the old man on the team.
Chicago's a pretty popular hockey market. As a pro hockey player, do you/your teammates ever go out to see any of the other teams play, i.e. if the Blue Jackets are in town to play the Blackhawks?
Myself, I haven't, although I know some guys have. I have a wife and a year-old daughter, so all my time is devoted to them. We have a pretty grueling schedule, so any time we're not on the road or practicing or games, it's rest and lots of family stuff for me. Some guys go because they know guys that they've played with before, so I'm sure that some of the guys have been to [NHL games], but I haven't been to any this year.
The ECHL is a bit lopsided due to geography. How's the travel?
Travel's not too bad, we haven't gone over to the west coast this year. But we've had a couple of 17-hour bus trips, one-way, so that can be tough, but we have a nice sleeper bus, so it's what you make of it. It's part of the job, and you've got to get used to it.
We flew down to Florida [Everblades] in the preseason and in the regular season. That was nice to fly; I don't know how long of a bus ride it would've been - way too long - so it was nice to fly down there and cut the travel by a lot.
What's your favorite opposing team/city to visit on the road and why?
I like to go to Toledo. I used to play there way back in the day, my first year of pro. And now they have probably the best arena in the league, great fans, it's always a good atmosphere there, and see some familiar faces. It's a really nice building, brand new, lots of fans, fun to play there.
Favorite memory from the team this year?
Probably a comeback win against Kalamazoo, in Kalamazoo. We were down 0-3 in the first period. I've played a lot of hockey over the years in that arena, and it's a hard building to get a win in, let alone come back from 0-3, so I think that showed a lot of character. It was a good team win. It's something you can build a lot of things on, and I was very proud of the team for that, especially there.
Favorite fan story from this year?
There's a lot of fans that come here, they're all fantastic. Lot of friends and fans from when I played in Rockford who come out. There's too many people to mention, such great support from there. It's just phenomenal to be able to have friends, they're great fans, but they're more friends to me, to come watch a game, and it's phenomenal to have them come and support me.
Have you seen any funny fan signs or remember any good heckling?
There were some good signs in Kalamazoo. I saw one time, Mannino stopped a penalty shot, and I went out and gave him a big hug in the game. So next game, somebody had a My Little Pony sign with rainbows, and it said "Lutz loves unicorns, rainbows, and goalies," and it also had a picture of me hugging Mannino. I thought that was pretty funny. There's lot of good signs there, they have good fans and they know me from past years. I try not to pay too much attention to signs, but the ones I've seen have been pretty funny.
Any other thoughts on the first year of the Express?
I think the team's done great. It's tough to start a new team with all-new players. Most teams have their core group of guys from the year before. So I think it's been great, we're going to make playoffs, so who knows from there. I think it's been a success. It's tough with the fan base also, with so many other hockey teams around, I think that [owner] Craig Drecktrah and the organization have done a great job, they should be proud of themselves.
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Thanks to Nathan Lutz and the Chicago Express!