By Lindsey Willhite | Photos by Ross Dettman | Childhood Photos Courtesy of Dottie Sweatt
The week before Bill Sweatt made his National Hockey League debut on Dec. 9 for the Vancouver Canucks in Montreal, the Chicago Wolves forward underwent another serious test in a less-hostile environment: the comfort of his own home.
Sweatt wrapped up the final exam in his 800-level Contemporary Managerial Accounting class – his first step toward earning an MBA in Finance via the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s online program.
If you can’t figure out why a 23-year-old with a bright hockey future feels the need to pursue a master’s degree in his spare time, then you need to understand how the Sweatt family operates.
Long before the Chicago Blackhawks made Sweatt their second-round choice in the 2007 NHL entry draft, Walter and Dottie Sweatt made sure their two sons knew that excellence must be pursued with equal fervor on the ice and in the classroom.
“It’s something our parents instilled in us,” Bill said. “You’ve got to be the best at both. You can’t just slack off in school and just try to be a hockey player – or the other way around. You’ve got to do both.”
Bill and his brother, Lee, learned these lessons while growing up in west suburban Lombard and Elburn. They spent their early years in a townhouse across the street from Yorktown Mall in Lombard, but their burgeoning passion for hockey forced them to find a new address.
“They didn’t have a place to shoot,” Dottie said. “I looked for a house that had a full basement. Basically, that was our criteria. We had to have a full basement where the furnace wasn’t in the middle of the room.”
Dottie’s long search finally led her to Elburn, where the Sweatt boys could have a 10-foot-high ceiling and everything else they needed for training.
Dottie, who grew up in Rhode Island and went to the Boston Garden every Sunday to watch Bobby Orr play for the Bruins, insisted on going to Canada to purchase NHL-regulation nets for the basement. Walter, who was a standout defensive back for Wofford College in the early 1960s, insisted on installing an 80-pound punching bag.
“That’s where our father taught us how to hit,” Lee said. “We practiced our checking on that. And we had 200 or so pucks. We’d be in the basement on roller blades working out and shooting.”
When the Sweatts started to play on travel teams, there weren’t any rinks close to Elburn. Bill starred for the Glen Ellyn Flames, Oak Park Eagles, Highland Park Falcons, Chicago Young Americans and Team Illinois over the course of 10 years.
Kenny McCudden, the Wolves skating and skills coach, tutored the Sweatt boys during their time with the Flames. “You knew at that age (they would be special),” McCudden said. “You could see the drive, the desire. They were the only two guys I had to try to put the reins on because they were hitting guys during the skill sessions. Yeah, they were taking guys out.”
“That sounds like Lee,” Bill said. “That doesn’t sound like me.”
“That is definitely true,” Lee said.
As the boys climbed the hockey ladder, they required increasingly longer trips in order to practice and play. Dottie says the family wore out three minivans on their treks, which makes sense considering it’s a 130-mile roundtrip from Elburn to the north suburbs and there were at least two practices and two games each week.
Because they had to depart immediately after school and didn’t return home until 9 or 10 p.m., the Sweatts had to get their homework done in the van – and they had to do it before they could play video games or watch movies.
“If you’re going to do your best in hockey, do your best in your studies as well,” Dottie said. “If you don’t make it in hockey, what do you fall back on? You can’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Lee, who graduated from Kaneland High School in 2003, received a scholarship to play at Colorado College, where he graduated with a 3.8 GPA in Mathematical Economics. He’s also expecting to wrap up his work for three master’s degrees (in finance, technology management, and project management) in May.
Bill spent his freshman year at Kaneland before moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2004 to join USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. In addition to picking up a pair of gold medals for his hockey prowess – he was voted “Top Forward” at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Under-18 World Championships in 2006 – he finished his final three years of high school in two years so he could play with Lee for a season at Colorado College.
After his freshman year at Colorado College, the Blackhawks made Bill the 38th overall selection in the 2007 draft. He opted not to accept the Blackhawks’ offer and returned to school. He could have reversed his decision after each college season, but never considered leaving.
“My agent asked me every summer,” Bill said. “I never wanted to go. I always wanted to stay and get my (Mathematical Economics) degree because hockey is a short life. It doesn’t last forever.”
If you think that’s lip service, consider Lee’s unlikely choice this summer. A 26-year-old defenseman, Lee played in 3 games for the Vancouver Canucks last season and signed a free-agent deal with the Ottawa Senators in July. But a month later – before training camp began – Lee retired in order to become a financial advisor in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I made a good decision,” said Lee, who wants to help young professional hockey players manage their bonuses. “I’m happy now. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. I watch guys blow their money all the time. Just the power of saving a portion of that money is incredible. I don’t really miss it at all.”
That having been said, Lee couldn’t get to Montreal quickly enough to witness his brother’s NHL debut on Dec. 9.
“We are exceptionally competitive when it comes to all things,” Lee said the day before the game. “We do very similar things and compete in a lot of areas. It’s a nice compliment that he’s following a little bit in my footsteps – and he’s successful at it.
“I had one remaining bragging right on him: playing in the NHL. That’s going to go by the wayside – and I couldn’t be happier.”
Dottie, on the other hand, could be a little bit happier. The self-described hockey fanatic thinks Bill’s rate of progress on the ice is great, but she’d like to see him pick up the pace on his MBA.
“Now that he’s got his feet wet, I’d like to see him take two courses now,” Dottie said. “That’d be great.”