With about 4 minutes to play in regulation-time of the Glenbrook North vs. Glenbrook South High School hockey game played the night before Thanksgiving 2019, South’s Mark Ibarra ripped a shot from the left point to tie the game, 2-2.
The Titans sensed this was their night, finally, a win was possible over their arch-rival in, without question, the biggest rivalry game of the year, of every year, in Illinois High School Hockey.
The Titans’ last win in the famed North/South/Thanksgiving game was in 2005, but the momentum was on South’s side late in the 2019 battle, played in Wilmette due to renovations at Glenview’s rink, the normal home for this bitter battle.
More than 1,000 loud, cheering fans were packed into Wilmette.
North wanted the win.
South wanted the win.
GBN head coach Evan Poulakidas had a hunch how to grab the W.
“I played two players who had not played a whole lot in the third period. I thought they would have a lot of legs left and both were skilled played,” said Poulakidas, who tagged Sam Levin and Brayden Roy for an OT shift.
Roy ultimately scored the game-winner.
“The place erupted like I had never heard in my life,” Poulakidas said. “It was a moment in time that I will never forget.”
North won, 3-2.
South was silent, stunned, with tears aplenty.
“That (2019 game) was an exciting game, despite losing. The game was amazing,” said Glenbrook South head coach Jim Philbin.
“I looked over at the South bench seconds after the goal, and we have a lot of respect for Philbin his staff and those kids. I could see how crushed they were losing. I really felt for them,” Poulakidas said. “It was a great, great, great hockey game, one I’ll never forget.”
Every game in the long history of the North/South/Thanksgiving battle has been memorable. Sure, North has dominated the series, but this remains so much more than just a rivalry game … it is a spectacle.
The North/South/Thanksgiving game draws parents, grandparents, classmates …. and alumni. Loads of alum from both schools. And the parents of those alumni.
“This may be the truest Homecoming game that is played during the year, and the rivalry is second-to-none,” Poulakidas said. “I’m not sure there are other rivalry games that compare with this game in the state, (in any) sport.”
Philbin said the North/South/Thanksgiving game is “circled on everyone’s calendar, from both South and North.” He said the traditional battle brings a “great atmosphere, is always very exciting, and just a fun game, always.” And no one knows more about this one-night rivalry than Philbin – this year’s game will be his 32nd that he is coaching.
“The kids really get hyped up for this game – everyone does,” Philbin said.
Players on both side of Willow Road, often the dividing line between the two schools, are pumped for the Thanksgiving battle from day one of the season. Nerves are high, emotions are high. The pre-game excitement is on par with past state championship games that the Spartans have played in, Poulakidas said.
That intensity runs through both locker rooms. In the stands too, of course.
You’re either wearing Green or you’re wearing Blue, nothing else.
“The hardest thing for the coaches is, to reel everyone in,” particularly with two points on the line this year for Scholastic Hockey League play, Poulakidas said.
“It often takes our guys a period to settle down, play GBN hockey. Our thinking always is: if we’re even after one (period), we’re feeling good.”
The pre-game speeches aren’t just for the North and South coaches. In fact, the head coaches and assistants don’t have to say much. Rather, it’s alumni motivating those prepping for the three-period war that is, without question, the talk of Northbrook and Glenview.
“There is a real feeling of an obligation to respond to the requests of the alum to make sure we get the job done,” Poulakidas said. “The true emotions of the speeches can give you chills. They talk about how much they miss the game, how much it’s meant to them, how this is the showcase game.”
Philbin said this rivalry game used to be more hate-filled. North hated South. South hated North.
It was a rivalry that was, at times, physical and ugly.
Not so anymore, certainly not over the past decade or so. The rivalry is still as intense.
North now respects South.
South now respects North.
“It isn’t this hate game,” said Poulakidas, who was in a hospital room – not on the Spartans bench – in 2011, the first year he was GBN’s head coach.
He had cancer surgery the day of the North/South/Thanksgiving game.
“I was really testy because I was in a lot of pain. I asked everyone to leave the (hospital) room so I could get the text messages from the game,” Poulakidas said. “I was sad that I wasn’t there, but the kids got it done. I slept a whole lot better that night.”
Neither team needs much pre-game motivation. The chills, energy and excitement are intense even hours before the opening faceoff – and fans are cheering for their heroes, and no doubt against an opponent, before the puck drops.
The coaches offer last-minute match-up reminders or plans in various situations.
“The players on both teams will never forget this game, especially the seniors,” Poulakidas said.
Ironically, these two teams were scheduled to battle in the 2020 state tournament semifinals in Bensenville, but the pandemic hit, cancelling the 2020 state tournament and the 2020-2021 season.
Both teams skate into the 2021 Thanksgiving special ranked in the Top 10 in the state – and both have wins over ranked teams. South is led offensively by Zack Freimuth, Carter Erickson and Will Papalas, yet it’s goalie Luke Winger who might be key for South’s answer on stopping the Spartans.
Can South win?
“Absolutely … absolutely,” Philbin answered without hesitation. “We have the talent to win this year. We can pull out the W. But, to do so, we have to play smart defense and our transition game needs to be on-point.”
GBN has an explosive offense, led by Josh Genin, Michael Dimoff and Owen Just. Forward Cooper Shalin and defenseman Kyle Burke are two other Spartans that South will have to stop.
“Of all the games over the past 10 years, the matchups this year are more even than ever,” Poulakidas said. “For us to win, we must be at full strength, and it is important that we do not fall behind (early); we have to avoid that at all costs.
“South has a really, really good team – and they know it. This year, more than ever, is going to be a huge test for us. Hopefully we’ll meet it.
“By far, this is the most evenly matched game is this series.”
Philbin added: “Bragging rights are on the line and it’s always a festive game. The game is always high-spirited … it’s just a phenomenal tradition.”