The high school years
Growing up in Chicago, when it comes time for high school many kids choose a private school, as the public school system isn’t what one would call adequate. I was looking at two schools, one was my dad’s alma matter, the other a rival, but had a better hockey team. I thought I was going to go with the rival school, but ultimately chose my dad’s alma matter, Brother Rice High School Chicago and couldn’t be happier with my choice.
One of the great things about playing high school hockey in the mid to late ‘90s in Chicago is that over half of our league, the Chicago Catholic Hockey League (the oldest continuously playing high school league in the nation I am told, played their home games at the Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood. What is great about this rink is that it had an organ that was played by Chicago Cubs organist Gary Pressy. Gary would show up early to games to talk to the players, and sometimes bring his mother who was a hoot to chat with. The rink also had a bar that overlooked it, so it wasn’t uncommon to take the ice, and look up into the stands only to not see your parents. They were in the warmth of the bar with a beverage in hand.
My Freshman year I made the school’s JV team. The program kept a total of four goalies, two on varsity, two on JV. We had a 20 game league schedule comprised of other Catholic schools from the area, and a non-conference schedule. We had some talent on our team, but too many of the players were individual minded, and not team oriented. Because of this we went 0-20 in league play. Loosing most games by six or more goals. It was not uncommon for me to see 50+ shots in a game. It took me awhile to come to grips with this, but I eventually learned that while the team’s success is the ultimate goal, there is only so much I can do, and if I play a good game I can’t beat myself up too much.
I also set a league mark that still stands – leading the league in save percentage, but also having the highest G.A.A. Those aren’t usually two honors that go together.
It was also in my freshman year that my JV coach was also studying for his Ph.D in psychology. He lived a few blocks from us, so it wasn’t uncommon for him to pick me up for practice. Today school policies would never allow for that, but it was a different time. This coach was from Wisconsin so he had no family in town, and we sort of adopted him, having him over for Thanksgiving dinner as he couldn’t go home because we were playing in a Thanksgiving tournament. It is a friendship the still continues today.
It was during those rides to practice with my coach that he pointed out to me that I was a classic case for ADHD, but even though it wasn’t that long ago (at least that’s what I tell myself as it was over 20 years ago) doctors were reluctant to prescribe medication for such diagnosis. It simply let the person like myself know you had to focus a bit harder than your peers.
Sophomore year I was again on the JV team as the varsity team had a senior and junior goalie. I was the starting JV goalie, and we did a little better this year, going 1-18-1 in league play, and winning a few more playoff games. We even got to play a scrimmage at what was then called the Rosemount Horizon (now All State Arena) before a Chicago Wolves game. What I remember most about that game was how hot the lights were. Even before the game I was sweating. In those days I’d wear sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt under my equipment. It was that game that changed things up. Now I wear a short sleeve shirt only – nothing else underneath.
That game at the Rosemount Horizon was our last game of the season, and the last that our coach from Wisconsin would coach us as he was graduating, and moving back to Wisconsin. Before he left, he left us with a piece of wisdom, telling us, “don’t quite anything that you’ll later regret not participating in.” He comment that he had several friends that quite playing baseball or hockey in high school because they knew they had no chance to play in college, but then later regretted not playing out that last year or two.
Junior year was a transformational year for me as not only an athlete, but a young adult. With a senior ahead of me, and two freshman goalies behind me, I was set to be the backup varsity goalie. After tryouts I got a phone call from the varsity coach. He gave me this song and dance that I’d be the starting JV goalie again. It was so I could play more games, and this and that. What later was revealed is one of the freshman goalie’s dads had paid a little extra to make sure his son would be on the varsity team as a freshman, because to him it looked better. This was a move that lead to the removal of that varsity coach.
My junior year started off rocky with how the rosters shook out, and now I had to get accommodated to a new JV coach with the previous one having gone back to Wisconsin. The new coach let me know right away that he expected me to be the leader of the team as the elder statesman. While I couldn’t be a captain because of the rules, he let me know I was the unofficial captain of the team. While I was hurt that I wasn’t playing on the varsity team with all the other players from my same year in school, I embraced my new role as team leader.
We had a much better season, finishing third in the league (I don’t remember the exact record), and made the playoffs for the first time in years. Unfortunately we lost our playoff game, but the season was a success. I also embraced being a team leader as I saw that my actions off the ice can have an impact on the team. That I am more than just a goalie.
Heading into my senior year I took a job as a skate guard at the Oak Lawn Ice Arena (OLIA). Talk about a great job for a hockey player. My job was to skate around during open skate to make sure people were following the rules, and assist with anybody having troubles on the ice. Yea we had to do some cleaning around the rink, and pass out rental skates, but with my newfound leadership skills, and skating ability, my managers looked to me to be a leader among my skate guard peers. It was though that job I made some lifelong friends, and got to drive a Zamboni for the first time.
Over the summer our new head coach was named – a chiropractor from British Columbia. We wouldn’t take the ice with him until tryouts, but our summer skate was run by the returning JV coach. During these summer skates I established my seniority, as we only had three of us returning. During the summer skates I made sure the two sophomores shared a net at one end, and I took all the shots at the other end.
When I started high school I did everything I could to reach out to junior hockey coaches. This was a time when we had internet at home, but it took a good 5 minutes for a webpage to load, and not even all NHL teams had their own webpages, so contacting teams and coaches wasn’t as easy as you’d think. I tended to find out about local open tryouts a day late and was on several wait lists, but was never invited to a tryout. Going into my senior year though, thanks to my connections from working at OLIA I learned of a new Junior B league based primarily along the gulf coast, but would have a team in Chicago. I got on the tryout list that included 9 other goalies. Because of the travel, this team was allowed to carry four goalies instead of three. I went through the tryouts, and made the cut, but the decided to keep five goalies incase one got hurt.
I remember our first practice after tryouts with the team, known as the Chicago Force. We had no pucks on the ice, did at least 200 pushups, skated till several puked, then started some hitting drills. Why us goalies were included in the hitting drills nobody knows. We would have been much better served going off to do movement drills and working with a coach, but this team didn’t have a goalie coach – we helped each other. We spent 45 minutes lined up in four lines at the center circle skating full force into each other. Several players showed up the next day with cracked or bruised ribs. Eventually we got into normal practices, and it was great. The team was building some chemistry in the locker room as well.
While I had all but made the junior team, I was also participating in my high school’s summer skates as well. A week before my high school team’s tryouts were to begin, I talked to the junior coach, asking him for an honest opinion of how much playing time he thought I’d get, because I had the opportunity to play my senior year for the school I had just played the last three years for. While the coach said I’d get playing time, he could see my allegiance was to my high school, and that’s the team my heart laid with, so I should go to the tryouts, and if I didn’t make the varsity team (which he said I would because I was too good not to), I had a spot on the Force. That was the last time I talked to that coach.
As the high school season started I was full of hope with the new coach because he was the first one I had that incorporated off ice training, and classroom sessions. I always understood systems, but he was teaching us how to read an opponent’s systems. The honeymoon didn’t last long though. He was a good coach in terms of philosophy, but did not know how to control the lock room. He quickly lost the respect of the senior players (half the team) because of this, and was taken advantage of by the underclassmen who had skated for him in youth hockey.
When it came to playing time my senior year I was the declared starter due to being the senior goalie, and started the first game of the season. Funny story about that first game of the season – my first as a varsity goalie. The first shot that was taken on me went in the net. The ref came to pick up the puck, looked at me, and said, “well you got that out of the way, let’s have some fun now.” I went on to play well in what was a 3-2 loss.
As the season went on, my backup and I split time. My backup’s dad quickly got to the coach, and started writing more checks to “sponsor” the team, which led to my backup playing in some of the higher profile games. I stayed positive, and focused on my game though as I knew I couldn’t control anything other than my own game.
When the regular season ended we had a sub .500 record, and we missed the CCHL playoffs as the bottom two teams in the league are the only ones excluded from the playoffs. We did have a surprising win in the first round of the state playoffs, but were beaten in the second round to end my high school hockey career.
My high school hockey career is certainly not one that will see me honored in my school’s hall of fame, and was filled with adversity, but it is one I am proud of, and a program I continue to be proud of and follow.