Blackhawks’ Dylan Strome reflects on season proudly: ‘I just tried to stick to who I am’

The Bill Masterton Trophy, given annually to the NHL player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey,” has evolved into essentially an “overcoming hardship” award.

Its winner has typically dealt with a major injury or health issue (like 2021 winner Oskar Lindblom, a cancer survivor), shed light on a personal struggle (like 2020 winner Bobby Ryan about his alcohol abuse) or championed an important cause (like 2019 winner Robin Lehner with mental health awareness).

Dylan Strome fits none of those categories. It’s why he was “taken aback” when told he was nominated for the Masterton this year, as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Frankly, it’s also why he probably won’t win with candidates like Carey Price and Jack Eichel in the field.

But absent any monumental off-ice story, Strome’s case is as worthy as any.

It would certainly be difficult to find any player around the league who encountered as much on-ice adversity — cast permanently into one coach’s dog house and a healthy scratch in nine of the first 26 games — as Strome did, who handled it with as admirable an attitude as Strome did and who persevered through it to succeed as much as Strome did.

“It’s an honor, for sure,” Strome told the Sun-Times recently. “I’m nowhere near comparing myself to those guys, guys that have beat cancer or battled through the mental battles they’ve gone through. [But] everyone is fighting their own battles. You never really know what someone’s going through completely.

“When you’re in the public eye so much, you’ve got to answer the questions. When things are going well or aren’t going well, you’ve got to answer the questions either way. I just try to be a positive guy, a good teammate, fun to be around, and you get rewarded when you do things like that. I’m proud of myself for the way I’ve handled this season, and hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come.”

The 25-year-old center tallied 41 points in his last 47 games this season, good for a 72-point pace over a full season.

He surged for 11 points in nine games between Jan. 4-28, then 10 goals and 17 points in 11 games between March 5-26 — he accurately noted he “scored almost half my goals in one month” — and finished off his excellent second half with a goal in the season finale against the Sabres.

Furthermore, his chemistry on the first line with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane kept the Hawks afloat offensively many nights and helped DeBrincat and Kane both enjoy prolific years. Back in December, when Strome was barely able to squeak into the lineup many nights, that sentence would’ve sounded ridiculous.

“[It was a] roller coaster of a season,” he said. “I started out not in the lineup and just worked my way back in. Obviously, everything happened — coaching change-wise — and I started playing a bit better and getting more opportunity. That’s where it all came from: getting that opportunity.”

In the end, his belief in himself was completely validated, something he admits felt gratifying. He earned a moment to toot his own horn.

“You’ve just got to stick with it, like I said earlier on in the season,” he said. “If you try to be someone else or do something else on the ice that’s not your game, that’s when things can go really wrong. I just tried to stick to who I am and play the same way I have. I’ve proven I can produce before, and I feel like I did it again.

“You’ve just got to trust yourself, believe in yourself, and when you get put in position, you’ve got to take your chances and run with it. That’s the big thing. Lots of guys get chances to play with some good players, but it’s the guys who take advantage of it [who] work out best in the long run.”

Strome plans to head back home to the Toronto suburbs this summer to train with his brothers — at least once Ryan Strome’s playoff run with the Rangers ends. (The Hawks have rooting interests in the Western Conference playoffs, too, since deep runs by the Wild and Oilers could improve their draft positions.)

His biggest summer plan of all is scheduled for August: his wedding with his fiancee, Tayler. But before then, Strome will become a restricted free agent — with arbitration rights — and learn whether he’s returning to Chicago in 2022-23 or joining a new team. It’s all up in the air and difficult to predict at the moment; Strome hasn’t had any “real conversations” yet with the Hawks.

After grinding through this chaotic season, though, he’s content to accept the temporary uncertainty and turn his brain off for a while.

“I’m very happy with the fact I haven’t been thinking about [my contract situation] a lot this year,” he said. “I haven’t been asked about it a lot, to be honest, which is nice. My first go-around, in my [2019-20] contract year, I was questioned about it a lot, which made me think about it a lot more, and it was constantly on my mind.

“This year, I just wasn’t really thinking about it a lot of the season — because I was just trying to get in the lineup and worry about playing and let the rest take care of itself.”

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