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State of Illinois High School Hockey, 2022-23

By Ross Forman, 09/13/22, 4:45PM CDT


Goals are being scored; goals are being set as thousands start the 6-month Illinois High School Hockey grind

Mark your calendars now, in bold red ink:

The Illinois High School Hockey State Championships for the Red, Combined and Girls Divisions will be played on Sunday, March 19, 2023.

At the United Center.

“It’s a great thrill for the kids (playing), a great showcase for the sport and for Illinois high school hockey,” to have the championship games at the United Center, said Jack Weinberg

Chairman of the AHAI High School Committee. “We’re very happy.”

As play begins this month for the 2022-2023 Illinois High School Hockey season, AHAI High School Hockey Writer Ross Forman sits down with Weinberg for a lengthy conversation on multiple topics.

“I think there has been some attrition in players and teams. It’s more obvious in tuition schools as opposed to public schools,” Weinberg said, when asked about the state of Illinois high school hockey. “Plus, we have some demographic changes, where houses haven’t turned over to younger people and there are just not as many high school kids in certain areas. Such as, Naperville.”

Long-standing teams such as Naperville North and Naperville Central might soon have to merge due to the lack of high school-aged players at those schools.

“Also, I think people are testing out this Central States’ Prospects League at the ages that are mostly JV players,” Weinberg said. “I think some people don’t truly understand the importance of playing with the kids who you go to high school with.”

Stevenson is the defending Illinois High School Hockey State Champion, marking the first state title for the Lincolnshire-based school. Waubonsie Valley captured the Combined Division State Championship, while co-op CCHS is the defending Girls State Champion.

“I’m absolutely thrilled for the season, as I’m sure everyone is. The high school game, unlike Tier II hockey, draws fans. The ability to have them back in the stands changes the game.”

Change overall is one of the big calling-cards this season. Teams, coaches, divisions and more have seen extensive change. Let’s start with the long-running Illinois Hayes-Suburban Hockey League that has been the home of such teams as AWFM, Mid-Valley Rampage, Homewood Flossmoor, and others.

The Hayes-Suburban League is no more, as all teams will now compete in other leagues.

Weinberg said there have been no talks yet to adopt the Hayes name from the Hayes-Suburban League for something else within Illinois high school hockey as it was named in honor of George Hayes, a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame and the founder of the Illinois Suburban Hockey League, who died in early-2020.

The Scholastic Hockey League welcomed Lake Forest to its roster of teams, while OPRF left for the Illinois West League.

There also have been rampant rumors that the Scholastic Hockey League, which features many of the state’s powerhouses, such as New Trier Green, Loyola Gold, Glenbrook North, Glenbrook South, Saint Viator and Stevenson, among others, will welcome some of the top Catholic League teams. Weinberg said he doesn’t know how that will develop over time.

“I would hate to see the Catholic League go away. It has a very strong, rich, deep history – and the Kennedy Cup is a wonderful tournament,” he said. “I hope the Catholic League will rebuild in the coming years.

“Teams come and go (to and from leagues) every year. We’ll see where (Scholastic) goes (in the coming years).”

Loyola Gold skated past archrival New Trier Green for last season’s best-of-3 SHL tournament championship, but it was the SHL’s Patriots who got the last laugh, as Stevenson won its first-ever state championship, with a convincing final win over rival Saint Viator.

“It was nice to see Stevenson win state, especially seeing the relationship between the hockey club and the school itself,” Weinberg said.

Weinberg said he wasn’t cheering for Stevenson, or anyone. He cheers for everyone.

“I like to see parity; I like to see good coaches developing programs, especially (developing) at the JV level. At those levels, it’s not about how many games you win, but rather, how much better \your players are at the end of the season,” he said. “A good program, developing players from the JV level into varsity players, that program will be strong and stay that way.”

Speaking of JV hockey, Weinberg confirmed the 2023 JV State Tournament will, again, be a 16-team, invitation-only event, with all four leagues contributing anywhere from three to five teams for the season-ending tournament.

Illinois likely will not ever return to a JV State Tournament for all JV teams.

“JV hockey should be a developmental level. The state tournament shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all,” Weinberg said. “Development is more important than wins and losses at the JV level. The idea (of JV hockey) is to get these kids ready to play varsity hockey.”

Hockey is the only sport in Illinois that has a JV state championship, Weinberg said. And there are only two other U.S. state champions for JV hockey.

The IHSHL North-Central Division will be a monster this season, with 34 clubs competing and a combined 61 teams (varsity and JV). Once again, North-Central will tier teams at the varsity and JV levels.

Weinberg is a strong proponent for the North-Central model. “Kids are not going to develop if they are losing 12-0 every game. They need to play against similar (leveled) teams, and North-Central does a tremendous job of that,” he said.

The Red and Combined Division of the state tournament will again carry a play-in process, thus, the No. 1-ranked team in the state will not open play against the No. 32 seed. Lower seeded teams will battle to advance in the state tournament, while top teams will receive byes through the early rounds.

Illinois West boasts 16 varsity teams, including such annual state powers as Waubonsie Valley, Glenbard, Maine Township, Wheaton West and Neuqua Valley, among others.

“They do a great job of managing their league and there are some great teams that really develop (their players),” Weinberg said of Illinois West.

Illinois West has, for sure, been a power in the Combined Division.

“I think we have a lot of strong (Combined Division) teams,” he said. “I think the high school committee has been attempting to define more closely what is a proper combination. We don’t want combined teams to look like Tier II teams with players from everywhere. The essence of high school hockey is to play with the kids who you go to school with, or at least the kids who attend schools in the same district. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Many teams this season across the state have new coaches, including Fenwick, OPRF, New Trier Green, Highland Park, and Saint Ignatius, among others. Nick Fabbrini, a former star forward at Fenwick who has long coached the University of Illinois, returned to his alma mater. Matt Smith left Ignatius to join the coaching staff of the Buffalo Sabres.

“We’re thrilled to have Nick back at Fenwick. I think he will do a great job rebuilding the Fenwick program,” Weinberg said. “Just like we hope to see our kids advance (to the next level of hockey), we’re thrilled to see coaches advance, too. We’re thrilled for Matt Smith.”

The AHAI High School Committee also has some new faces, as it now includes Spencer Montgomery, Greg Mrofcza, Chris Waters and Tom Wood.

Montgomery has replaced Smith as the Saint Ignatius head coach.