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Blackhawks rookie Drew LeBlanc in the hunt for roster spot

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Updated: September 22, 2013 2:27AM

Had this whole hockey thing not panned out, Drew LeBlanc would’ve been in a math classroom somewhere on Thursday, standing in front of a couple dozen kids, teaching.

Instead, LeBlanc was at the United Center, skating in front of 20,000 people, learning.

The 2013 Hobey Baker Award winner as college hockey’s top player is learning that NHL hockey is a few steps faster than it was at St. Cloud State. He’s learning that you don’t get the type of feedback and hands-on coaching in the NHL that you do in college. He’s learning the mental and physical day-to-day demands of being a professional athlete.

And he’s learning that, even at 24, even after a terrific college career that had teams across the league pursuing him, even after a “whirlwind” two-week stint with the Blackhawks last spring, that he might not be ready for the rigors of the NHL just yet.

“Probably not,” he said after a thoughtful pause, clearly having yet to learn the professional athlete’s art of not telling the unvarnished truth in interviews. “I think it’s a process. The game definitely happens a lot faster at this level, and they say after the preseason, it picks up another half a step. So it’s tough to tell until you get thrown into the fire. I guess we’ll find out as the season goes on.”

That’s not to say LeBlanc already has his ticket punched for Rockford. With Brandon Pirri injured and only Jimmy Hayes really seizing the moment, he’s still in the hunt for the three or four roster spots that are up for grabs at training camp. And he’d be more than happy to keep learning on the fly.

“I think I’d stay if they let me,” he said with a smile.

Coach Joel Quenneville said LeBlanc has “gotten better each and every day,” posting two assists and acquitting himself well at center, always a position of need for the Hawks. But Quenneville acknowledged how difficult the transition is from playing Bemidji State and Michigan Tech to playing the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins.

“He’s right,” Quenneville said. “Whether you’re coming out of junior or European hockey, the NHL is as good a league as you’re ever going to see. Guys are smarter, they’re stronger, their instincts are in the right place, and you’ve got to make sure you’re well-prepared.”

LeBlanc wasn’t nearly prepared for his NHL debut last April in Edmonton, when, with nothing on the line, Quenneville rewarded the hardworking recent signing with a stint at center between Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. He played again in the season finale when Quenneville rested half his regulars. The math-education major didn’t sweat his stat line — no points, minus-3 — and instead just enjoyed the ride.

But after signing a two-year contract worth $575,000 a year (just above the league minimum) over the summer, and with roster spots open and attainable, it’s less about fun and more about business.

And LeBlanc’s business right now is to keep working, and to keep learning, so he can convince Quenneville — and himself — that he’s ready for the NHL right now.

“I’m not sure yet,” LeBlanc said of his ideal role. “The coaches and management will decide what’s best for me. And whatever they tell me to do, I’ll take it and run with it.”

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