Saad has timing down

20-year-old Hawks winger on fast track for success on top line with Toews and Hossa

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On the elevator outside Blackhawks rookie Brandon Saad's downtown apartment hours before a recent home game, his parents realized they had forgotten their family passes.

Sandra Saad told her son, who was their ride to the United Center, she needed to go back up to retrieve the tickets. He responded in a way that would cause Mom to put him in the proverbial penalty box if the 20-year-old whom teammates call "Man-child'' still were living at home.

"Brandon was in his suit and said, 'This is when I leave so you better hurry up because I don't wait around for anybody,' '' Sandra said. "My husband, George, and I looked at each other and my husband finally said, 'He's right, this is business for him.' ''

This is the foundation of discipline planted deeply within Saad.

"I just told them that they can come with me, fine, but we have our routine,'' Saad recalled Wednesday with a chuckle. "I like to be on time.''

Suggest Saad has arrived on the verge of stardom ahead of schedule and coach Joel Quenneville will disagree. Quenneville endorsed Saad for the Calder Trophy annually awarded the league's top newcomer as easily as he dismissed the idea the sturdy 6-foot-1, 201-pound left winger unfairly benefits from playing alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. A healthy scratch in the season opener, Saad slid onto the top line after Daniel Carcillo's injury and carried over the two-way consistency he displayed at Rockford during the lockout.

"He belongs there,'' Quenneville said. "I'm not surprised at all. Last year we saw him do some amazing things and he went back to (Saginaw) and almost dominated. He's so strong and big on the puck. We like the progress.''

When Quenneville took over the Blackhawks in October 2008, Toews was 20. Asked how Saad now compares to Toews then, Quenneville complimented the rookie simply by pausing to consider how truly similar their styles are.

"That's a pretty interesting question,'' Quenneville said. "Jonny might have a bit more pace to his game, around the puck. Both guys follow the puck, or it follows them around, very well. Defensively, they're both responsible. … Jonny was probably more highly touted. (Saad) might be under the radar more. We'll see how Saad ends up.''

It all started on a hockey rink outside Pittsburgh — Penguin Country — when Brandon was 3 learning to skate and shoot the puck like Mario Lemieux alongside brother George, who is two years older. When George left the ice in tears, Brandon urged him to come back and play.

"Brandon was like, 'Come on, George, you don't want to play hockey?' '' Sandra said. "He was always a natural.''

Skating faster than the other kids posed only one problem for Saad: He originally wanted to be a goaltender.

"We said Brandon, 'You can't be a goalie, you have too much speed, nobody can catch you,' '' Sandra said.

His career soared so quickly that, after turning 16, Saad left home for Michigan where he learned independence and prepared for a pro career by playing for an elite U.S. junior team and the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. Looking back, Sandra Saad believes the experiences of Brandon's father eased all the difficult goodbyes with her teenager.

"Where my husband grew up, they let you go be a man, make something of yourself, so that's what he did,'' Sandra said.

When George Saad was 18, he emigrated to America from Syria and eventually earned a degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Today, the engineer runs his own real estate company between trips to Chicago for Hawks games and State College, Pa., where oldest son George just finished playing hockey at Penn State.

"Certain times I look back and think, is this really happening?'' said Brandon, who has points in 16 of the last 23 games. "But growing up as I did keeps me grounded. It's nice to have success, but it's more important to be nice. I was lucky. Seeing what my dad had done helped me know responsibility and mature quickly.''

It was that maturity that stood out to former Blackhawks player and Flames coach Greg Gilbert, who coached Saad last year at Saginaw. Gilbert raved about Saad's innate hockey sense and vision in traffic. But nothing impressed him more than seeing Saad work in the weight room.

"He's an animal in there,'' Gilbert said. "He attacked the weights. Every little bit he did off the ice contributed to success on it. Mentally and physically, he put himself head and shoulders above the rest of the players in that league.''

The kid looks on a similar path in the NHL. And once Saad is on his way, he can be hard for anybody to stop.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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