The road to what Chicago Wolves left winger Bill Sweatt hopes will be a spot on the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks’ roster began right here in central DuPage County.
Sweatt, who just turned 23, was born in Lombard. But he and his family—Dorothy, Walter and older brother, Lee—moved to Elburn when Bill was around 5 years old.
As commuters who frequent Metra’s Union Pacific/West trains know, Elburn is the last stop on the line. It’s a quaint town of around 5,000 situated halfway between Wheaton and DeKalb. The only drawback for fledgling hockey players like Bill and Lee is that Elburn had no skating rink. Lee joined the Glen Ellyn Flames youth hockey team prior to the family moving to Elburn, so Bill (who’s three years younger) eventually became a Flame, as well.
Starting around age 7, Bill played for the Flames (which is now the Flames Ice Hockey Club) between two and three years. Mr. and Mrs. Sweatt, though, decided to move their youngest son to a youth league in Oak Park after one of the Flames’ coaches switched Bill from forward to defense.
“My parents weren’t too happy when I got switched to ‘D,’ ” Bill laughs. “One of the coaches wanted to use my speed (and put me) as a defenseman. I tried defense for a year, and that’s actually the reason why I went to Oak Park.”
Skating is one of Bill’s strongest assets. “Sweatt has tons of speed,” said Wolves GM Wendell Young. “He can use his speed to his advantage.”
His combination of speed and talent quickly moved him through the ranks. Sweatt never played high school hockey; instead, he joined Team Illinois AAA Hockey, which plays in what is considered to be the most competitive AAA (elite level) league in the United States. He suited up with Team Illinois for five years, and spent one season with the Chicago Young American’s AAA team.
Bill also competed for the U.S. National U18 hockey team from 2004 through 2006. In 2006, he was named the top forward at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Under-18 World Championships. Also in 2006, he brought home a gold medal as part of the U.S. team that won the IIHF Men’s InLine Hockey World Championships.
“It (playing inline hockey) was another way for us to kind of train in the summer because there wasn’t much ice available,” he said. “I kept going with that as long as I possibly could.”
Later that year, Bill joined his brother at Colorado College, where Lee was a senior defenseman for the Tigers. Colorado College, located in Colorado Springs, is part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, whose teams have won 36 NCAA Division I championships and produced former and current NHL standouts such as Dany Heatley, Brett Hull, Chicago Blackhawks Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito and Hawks star forward Jonathan Toews
Bill skated alongside Lee and produced 26 points in 30 games during his freshman year. His numbers caught the eye of NHL scouts.
The Hawks took Bill in the second round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (the 38th player selected overall). However, he opted to return to Colorado College and played three additional seasons. Bill recalls being excited about getting drafted by an NHL team, but admits the hometown Hawks weren’t his favorite club growing up.
“When they blacked out every (home) game (on TV) when you were a kid, it’s hard to know how they’re doing or just to know the players year in and year out,” he said. “My favorite team growing up was actually the Colorado Avalanche because Peter Forsberg was my favorite player.”
During his senior season (2009-10), Bill tallied 33 points on 15 goals and 18 assists.
The summer of 2010 proved to be an interesting one for Bill—one in which he would eventually move to Winnipeg. The Hawks, who retained Bill’s draft rights, made him part of a trade that shipped Kris Versteeg—an integral part of the Hawks’ Stanley Cup championship team—to Toronto shortly after Bill had graduated from Colorado College.
The trade took place two weeks before Bill was to become a free agent, and caught both he—and his agent—by surprise.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” he said. “I think I saw it (the news about the trade) on NHL.com and I called my agent and he was like, ‘Yea, I had no idea about this.’ So that kind of caught us off-guard.”
Bill never signed with the Maple Leafs’ organization, instead choosing to try free agency. The Vancouver Canucks inked him to a three-year, entry-level contract in mid-August, and Bill became part of the Manitoba Moose—Vancouver’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate team.
Moving to Winnipeg, however, wouldn’t be a total culture shock. Bill was once again reunited with his brother, who had signed with the Canucks’ organization a couple of months earlier. The Sweatt brothers played the entire 2010-11 campaign with the Moose. Bill ended up being the team’s second-leading scorer with 19 goals and 46 points.
Lee signed with the Ottawa Senators this past July, but decided to retire and pursue a career in the financial industry.
“He’s been a big influence,” Bill said of his brother. “He’s one of the reasons why I went to CC. He’s been a big influence so far in my pro game because he had four years (of pro) experience (playing in North American and in Europe). I try to shoot questions off of him if I have any. He tries his best to answer them.”
Bill once again found himself in transition—and on the move—over the summer. True North Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the Manitoba Moose, purchased the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and moved the team to Winnipeg in June. With an NHL team now in Winnipeg, the group moved the Moose to St. John’s Newfoundland. That team, now called the IceCaps, is the Winnepeg Jets' AHL affiliate.
Since Atlanta was no longer home to an NHL franchise, the Wolves were in limbo … but not for long. The Wolves agreed to become Vancouver’s new AHL affiliate. And with that deal, Bill headed back to the Chicago area.
Bill said he’s thrilled to return to Chicagoland.
“I love the area, and know the area a lot and love being from Chicago, so I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
There’s always a high volume of turnover with affiliate teams, and the Wolves are no different. Bill is trying to jell not only with new teammates, but with a new head coach, Craig MacTavish, who played 17 NHL seasons. The team just started its 2011-12 campaign and had its home opener Saturday night at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
“Like all players at this time of year, he’s relearning the game,” said MacTavish. “We’ve all been away from the game for a long time, and Bill had a bit of an injury through training camp, so he’s got a little less experience to this point.”
One of only two American-born players on the Wolves' roster, Bill currently is skating on the team's top line with center Jordan Schroeder—the Canucks’ No. 1 draft pick in 2009—and right winger Mark Mancari, who has over 150 career AHL goals.
Of course, Bill hopes to be called up to the Canucks at some point and make his NHL debut. When that takes place, he says, depends on his progress and what happens during the season with Canucks’ personnel. He could be called up, for example, if a Vancouver forward suffers an injury.
“You can never put a timetable on it because you never know how long it’s going to take you to learn the skills that they want you to learn,” he said. “It all depends on personnel and how long it takes to develop your game. There’s a lot of extra things that go into that decision being made.”