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Joining the Blackhawks still surreal for prospect Nolan Valleau

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Nolan Valleau is bound to have that reoccurring dream where he forgets to attend a college course all semester.

In reality, Valleau doesn’t have to worry about school any longer. His focus completely turned to hockey when he decided to forego his final three years at Bowling Green and accept an entry-level contract from the Blackhawks last month. That reality just hasn’t sunk in yet.

“I still wake up thinking I’m going to go to psychology class, and that’s a nightmare,” the 22-year-old Valleau said recently while playing for the Blackhawks at the Traverse City rookie tournament.

Valleau had all along planned to return to his classes at Bowling Green heading into the summer. He attended the Winnipeg Jets’ and Blackhawks’ prospect camps in July to get a feel for pro hockey, but he never imagined anything would come out of it, at least not right away.

Valleau impressed the Blackhawks with his ability to handle the puck and skate as a defenseman. And with the Blackhawks trading away some of their defenseman prospects, there was a spot to sign him.

“He had a real good year at school, brought him into development camp and he shined,” Blackhawks senior director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley said. “He’s real comfortable with the puck, good puck decisions. That’s what the development camp [is for]. That’s why we bring in those free agents. Hopefully there’s that one stands out.”

Valleau experienced a mixture of feelings when the Blackhawks later offered him a contract.

“I was definitely excited, a little nervous because I had three years of school left,” said Valleau, who previously played for the USHL's Chicago Steel. “So, I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice and felt good about the whole thing.

“I was just kind of curious where the organization thought of me and would have me coming in as. I thought if I needed a lot more time to develop, which I do for the most part. I thought if I did, I would go back to school. They obviously believed in me enough to move forward.”

The Traverse City tournament was Valleau’s first opportunity to put on a Blackhawks uniform. His mother and grandmother were in the stands for his first game on Friday.

Valleau drew favorable reviews during the tournament. Kelley and Rockford IceHogs coach Ted Dent, who coached the rookie team, spoke positively of his game, especially his decision making. ESPN’s NHL draft and prospects analyst Corey Pronman thought Valleau had a chance to be an NHL player.

“He impressed offensively,” Pronman said. “I had not seen a ton of him prior to that tournament, but he was showing above-average mobility and puck-moving skills. He's not a standout prospect, and if he makes it will be at the bottom of a lineup, but he showed to me he at least has a chance.”

Valleau has found the professional game to be more suitable to his style than the college one.

“It’s way more skill at this level than the college level,” Valleau said. “The college level I actually think is a little more physical, more like chip and chase and get bodies on the puck. It’s a little more grueling on the body. This is a lot more high intensity and skill and so it’s fun.”

Valleau will likely start this season in the AHL with the IceHogs. He said he’d like to get bigger and stronger. He also plans to continue to closely watch how Duncan Keith plays for the Blackhawks.

“I talked briefly to [Blackhawks general manager] Stan Bowman, and he mentioned I play how the Chicago Blackhawks defensemen play,” Valleau said. “I obviously don’t play like Duncan Keith, but I like to model myself after him. I thought I could mold myself off of something of Duncan Keith.”

Later this week, Valleau will be skating with Keith at training camp.

“That will be a little bit surreal seeing him in the locker room and all that stuff,” Valleau said. “I’ll have to pinch myself.”

Sure beats college psychology.