He’s back, and already talking about Fenwick winning the Kennedy Cup and the Illinois High School State Championship.
Nick Fabbrini, a 2004 graduate of Fenwick High School, returned to the school this spring, accepting its head coaching position. The 36-year-old Fabbrini played two varsity seasons for the Friars and they won state both years. Fenwick was a combined 109-26-4 during his two seasons.
Fenwick also won the famed Kennedy Cup, presented to the Chicago Catholic Hockey League champion, those two seasons.
“I’m extremely excited about the opportunity to come back and lead a program that means so much to me and to so many others,” Fabbrini said. “Fenwick Hockey has been around for almost 60 years and has a tradition of excellence that few programs can match.
“I’ve talked to the (school’s athletic) director and principal a few times over the last few years, both when they were looking for a new coach and when they weren’t, to offer my support and insight. The opportunity to work in the school every day and to see our student-athletes on a daily basis definitely added a level of intrigue that maybe didn’t exist before … but I’ve always had an eye on coming back.”
Fabbrini played for the University of Illinois after Fenwick, then became the Illini Head Coach, spending nine seasons on Illinois’ bench, building a career record of 202-126-22.
Fabbrini was a two-time finalist for the ACHA Coach of the Year and more. He also was a coach for two World University Games teams (2017 in Kazakhstan, 2019 in Russia).
“My first thought (after accepting the Fenwick job) was that we need to get started right away,” he said. “I think the program needs a bit of an overhaul in a lot of aspects. I’ve been evaluating everything – from practice and workout times to the way the program is structured and operates. I think there will be noticeable changes for people both inside and outside the program this year.
“I’ve been lucky to spend the vast majority of my coaching career between two schools and hockey programs that provided me with really special experiences. After winning two national championships as a player at Illinois and feeling like I did everything I could to give those guys a similar experience; I’m absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to do the same thing here at Fenwick. I still talk with a lot of my old Fenwick teammates on a regular basis, and likely will (forever). Winning together has bonded us forever.”
And that they absolutely did. His Fenwick teams were dominant. And Fabbrini skated on a line – with John Glancy and Mike Janda – that veterans of the local game will attest was one of the best forward lines ever. Quite possibly, the best.
“I didn’t really publicize that I was considering a change, but still had a couple of job offers kind of fall into my lap, including a head coaching job at the junior level,” Fabbrini said. “But Fenwick really seemed like the best fit for me. Plus, the opportunity to rebuild the program and make Fenwick Hockey a factor again was really enticing.”
He also will be the school’s freshman resource coordinator, working with students who may need a little additional support in terms of developing study and organizational skills to be successful at Fenwick and beyond.
“The high school (hockey) landscape has changed with the emergence of schools like Saint Viator, St. Ignatius, Benet, PREP, and a handful of others who maybe weren’t as competitive even a few years ago,” Fabbrini said. “Of course, there are the Illinois high school blue bloods like New Trier, Loyola, and Glenbrook North who always seem to be a factor at the end of the season. I’m really excited for the challenge and to be able to compete against coaches who have been really successful for a really long time.”
He doesn’t just want to compete.
“We want to compete for a Chicago Catholic League title and be a factor in the Kennedy Cup and state playoffs. I haven’t seen a ton of Illinois high school hockey the last few years, but I think we have a lot of young talent and a group of kids who are ready to take the next step as a program,” he said.
Fabbrini has countless memories from his years with the Illini, including sweeping Robert Morris University at home on the last weekend of the 2013 regular-season to win the CSCHL regular-season title. “The two trips to Europe to represent Team USA were two of the best hockey experiences of my life,” he said. “The 2017-2018 season, we went 8-0 in 3 on 3 overtime, with half those wins coming in CSCHL games. We were also reasonably successful at Ohio University, winning at least one game there every year after not winning there at all for 10 or 12 years straight.
“When I started at Illinois, we were paying more to use the ice arena for home games than any other organization in Champaign. A lot of research, time and effort went into getting our ice costs reduced by roughly $15,000 annually. We also were able to remain competitive at the highest level of the ACHA, which has essentially become an extension of NCAA Division 3. We are basically the only team in the top 20 of ACHA Division 1 that doesn’t offer some financial incentive for students to attend and get 99 percent of our players from the state of Illinois. Most teams we compete against have players from across North America and some from Europe.”
Fabbrini had nothing but praise for his college coaching run – and strongly urged high school skaters to consider ACHA options across the country.
“If you’re not playing NCAA Division I hockey, and in a lot of cases even if you are, you’re not going to be able to play hockey for a living. (So), it’s important to choose a school that has programs you’re interested in and/or that can provide you with a degree you can use in the real world,” Fabbrini said. “That said, if it comes down to two or three schools, you should absolutely consider continuing to play hockey if you can. There are divisions in the ACHA, and you can likely find the competitive level that is right for you. If you love the game, play for as long as you can. Men’s league (hockey) and 9-to-5 jobs await us all.”
The ACHA, he said, “is a great opportunity to continue to play hockey while getting a degree. A lot of schools have teams at multiple levels, so you can choose the time commitment that is right for you. I think most people would be surprised at the overall talent level and amount of school and community support that some programs get.”
There are three divisions at the men’s level of the ACHA: 1, 2, and 3. “For the most part, the talent level is reflected across the three divisions just as you’d expect. In my opinion, the top teams in ACHA Division 1 would be ranked just outside the top 20 or 25 in NCAA Division III. More and more programs are operating under the NCAA model with their coaches being full-time university employees and players receiving financial incentives and not paying anything to play hockey. There are some D2 and D3 programs that operate this way also, but the bulk of my experience is at the D1 level. If you took the team names off and pulled rosters from the top 10 ACHA D1 teams and NCAA DIII teams outside the top 25, I truly believe you’d have a hard time choosing which roster was NCAA and which was ACHA. The growth has been incredible.”
The University of Illinois has a combination of factors “that really make it an outstanding choice for anyone not playing NCAA Division I,” Fabbrini said. “It’s a top 10 public school in the country; our rink is in the middle of a beautiful campus that you can walk to everyday; we play in front of more people than 90 percent of NCAA Division III teams, and with basketball being a force in the Big 10 again and football on the rise, I think it’s really hard to match the overall college experience we can provide.
“I still remember celebrating the 2005 Illini basketball team going to the National Championship game in the middle of Green Street on campus with about 20,000 other students. Something completely unrelated to hockey that I will remember for the rest of my life. That’s what college is about.”
Tips For High School Hockey Players
“I think the most important thing for players to understand is, most players will have to change parts of their game to be successful at the next level, whether it’s college hockey or junior hockey,” Fabbrini said. “Playing high school (hockey) helps with that a little because most players at some point will play against someone who is two-plus years older than them. And if you want to play in college, that is all but guaranteed. There are 25-26 year-old men in the ACHA, at all levels, some of whom also played 2 or 3 years of junior hockey. Even the best 18 year-old players will need to adjust. The quicker you can figure out what parts of your game translate to the next level and what needs work, the better off you’ll be.”
What He Learned From Fenwick
“From a hockey perspective, Fenwick really helped get me ready for the next level. I was fortunate to play for two great coaches: Dave Cromer and Mike Breslin, and both of those guys were great resources for me. We had 3 practices per week, 2 days in the weight room, and senior year especially played an incredible schedule that included a good number of games against prep schools and a tournament against top 20 Minnesota high school teams. As a coach, it was good to get as much experience as I could in different roles. After coaching one year at the Chicago Hawks and two years at Fenwick, there was no doubt in my mind that I was ready to lead a program myself. It’s now kind of funny looking back and realizing all the stuff I didn’t know I didn’t know.”
Returning To Fenwick
“Yes, it was always something I’ve thought about and discussed with people at Fenwick and some friends ... I just wasn’t sure when.”
Former Fenwick Teammates
“I still talk to those guys regularly. Janda is coaching at Wisconsin-Stout, NCAA DIII, and will be back around this summer to help. I (know) Glancy is excited about getting involved with the program as well.”
“We are coming up on 60 years as a program and there’s been tremendous outreach from alumni who are eager to do whatever they can to get Fenwick Hockey back on track.”