The reason Dennis Gilbert was called up to the Blackhawks last April for one game could hardly matter less to him.
Whether it was a thank you for a terrific season at Rockford or because the Hawks just needed a defenseman that day, the fact is he made his NHL debut playing on the same ice as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
The memory of that game will never fade, and neither will the motivation.
"The hardest summer I've worked by far was this summer just so I'd be ready to go," Gilbert said following Saturday's 6-3 loss to the Maple Leafs at the NHL Prospect Tournament. "Because you want to be there all the time. The (being) taken care of, the planes, not the bus rides. It seems small but it's something you really want to do and you dream of since you were a little kid.
"Getting that little taste last year made it seem like it's a possible reality, so you want to do everything you can to get there full time whenever that is."
It isn't going to be this season barring injuries or a trade. The Hawks are set at the NHL level with their top six defensemen, and depth defensemen Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom will keep Gilbert playing big minutes in Rockford.
IceHogs coach Derek King loves having him for his dependability and leadership – Gilbert is the captain of the Hawks' prospects team this week – and wants him to be patient. The NHL will happen for him, just maybe not as soon as he would like.
"He's going to be a good pro, a good NHLer," King said. "I'm not sure when it's going to be, but he will play in the NHL, I believe. He's just got to keep growing, keep getting better every day, every shift, every game, and who knows what he can do."
Gilbert, 22, has had a quiet tournament so far. He has one assist in two games, hasn't committed a penalty, and his main role has been to serve as support while defensive partner Adam Boqvist makes rushes into the offensive zone.
Boqvist is an elite talent whose skills Gilbert will never be able to match. But after years of being known as a "defensive" defenseman, Gilbert would like to start incorporating more offense to his game.
In three seasons at Notre Dame, Gilbert had six goals and 36 assists in 116 games. Last year at Rockford, he had five goals and nine assists in 63 contests.
"I was pretty defensive in college after being offensive going in so – I don't want to say I lost those offensive touches or skills – just kind of getting that back into my game this summer," Gilbert said. "Working on some shooting stuff, puckhandling, a lot of footwork stuff to be able to skate against those top players on offense to make their lives difficult."
Hawks training camp starts on Friday. Gilbert will be there, working hard and making sure the Hawks know he's ready whenever they have a need.
Next time, he's hoping for more than just one game.
"Wherever I am, I'm always going to be competitive and working my butt off in practice and the games and whatever I can do to help wherever I am," Gilbert said. "So if I'm in Rockford then I'm going to be the best player I can be for that team and help them win games. Then if I'm in Chicago bring whatever I can to the table, whatever I'm asked of."