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Kennedy Cup: ‘The Holy Grail’ Of The Chicago Catholic Hockey League

By Ross Forman, 02/21/23, 11:45AM CST


Best-of-3 Series Brings Out Classic Battles, Lifelong Memories

Saint Ignatius won game one of the best-of-3 Kennedy Cup Finals on Monday, defeating Providence Catholic, 8-2.

Craig Ferguson is a skating encyclopedia of all things Chicago Catholic Hockey League, particularly the prestigious Kennedy Cup, awarded annually since 1964 to the CCHL playoff champion.

He’s won the trophy a record 14 times: his first three as a center playing for Mount Carmel (1977, 1978, 1979), then twice (1982, 1983) as the Mount Carmel assistant coach, four times (1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000) as the Caravan head coach, and lastly, five consecutive years as the St. Rita head coach (2008-2012).

“It’s a special experience any time you’re able to win a major trophy that has historical significance. When you think about all the teams, players and coaches who have won the Kennedy Cup, it can be humbling,” said Fenwick head coach Nick Fabbrini, 37, who talks with first-hand knowledge as he was a two-year Fenwick varsity forward before graduating in 2004 – and the Friars won the Kennedy Cup both his junior and senior seasons.

“The Kennedy Cup … that’s our Stanley Cup. The Kennedy Cup means a lot because of its history and tradition. It’s a goal that everyone tries to achieve, is always at the forefront of every season and in the off-season,” said Saint Ignatius JV assistant coach Mike Rigatano, who was a class of 2010 graduate of Montini Catholic High School – and a three-year left-wing battling, unsuccessfully, for Kennedy Cup glory.

The CCHL was established in 1963 and the firstr Kennedy Cup champion (Fenwick) was crowned in 1964. The CCHL is the oldest youth hockey league in Illinois and the list of players who have skated in the league is eye-popping. The CCHL has been the local hockey home to Chris Chelios (Mount Carmel), Eddie Olczyk (Brother Rice), Bates Battaglia (Fenwick), Joe Corvo (Fenwick) and Tim Stapleton (Fenwick). Former NCAA standouts Gary Kruzich (DeLaSalle, 1984 NCAA Champion at Bowling Green) and Scott Paluch (St. Rita) also have skated for the Kennedy Cup, as well as George Roll (Brother Rice), Joe Augustine (St. Rita), Mark Opstipina (Mount Carmel), John Micheletto (Mount Carmel) and thousands of others.

Nine teams are fighting for Kennedy Cup fame in 2023, as the treasured trophy celebrates its 59th season. Saint Ignatius won the regular season title, ahead of Providence Catholic.

The drama truly starts when best-of-three series begin for the Kennedy Cup.

Ferguson will be in the stands for many Kennedy Cup games, once again – and certainly for the finals. He’s been hooked on CCHL action since the early 1970s.

In the fall of 1972, the Southwest Ice Arena, along 127th Street in Crestwood, opened. Ferguson lived three blocks from the rink – and SIA at the time was the hockey home for many teams, including Brother Rice, Mount Carmel, St. Rita, Marist and others.

Ferguson spent countless weekends as a youngster at SIA watching Catholic League games.

He then played on some “really terrific” Caravan teams that won the Kennedy Cup his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. His senior season, 1979, Mount Carmel also won state.

“Winning the Kennedy Cup was always the first goal, then win state secondary. And if you won state, as great as that tournament is, it didn’t matter if we didn’t win the Kennedy Cup,” said Ferguson, explaining the importance of the Kennedy Cup that has run through every Catholic League team for decades.

“I won the Kennedy Cup as a senior … I’ll always remember that. As a coach, winning my first at Mount Carmel was very, very special. Then, at St. Rita, my son Michael played for me and he won it three consecutive seasons, 2009-2011; those (Cup titles) are definitely special.”

Ferguson’s first Kennedy Cup title in 1977 certainly stands out. The Caravan were near-perfect in the regular-season, finishing 19-1. In the Kennedy Cup finals that season, the Caravan grabbed game one; Brother Rice rebounded to win the second. Then it was The Chris Chelios Show.

The then-future NHL star scored both goals in game three as the Caravan triumphed, 2-1.

The Caravan’s 1977 title was the school’s first of six consecutive Kennedy Cup titles, the first three under head coach John Deuran, the final three under Tom Kurow.

Mount Carmel ran off another six-year stretch of Kennedy Cup crowns from 1985-1990, and the school now boasts a CCHL-leading 20 Kennedy Cup titles, though none since 2000 – when Ferguson was the team’s head coach.

“Mount Carmel was so good,” said Bill Martin, who played for Fenwick from 1979-82 and then was Fenwick’s head coach from 1984-87. “I think the (Mount Carmel) teams that I coached against, four of their players played in the USHL. Tom Kurow was a great coach. They had players who were as good as any in Illinois. They were so deep – their third and fourth lines were better than everyone else’s first line. They passed the puck so well and played as a team. It wasn’t like, they had one superstar. It was a complete team.

“They were as deep as any of the dominant (New Trier) Green or Glenbrook North teams. All six defensemen were great and all forwards could score. Plus, they were clean; they just played hard.”

Martin laughs now, recalling a game against the Caravan when Fenwick lost 18-1 after Mount Carmel scored 10 in the first period.

“Mount Carmel set a standard that was so high; you knew how high the mountain was and you knew it would take long time to get up that mountain,” said Martin, a 1982 Fenwick graduate who now is the Highland Park High School JV Coach and also a youth coach for the Winnetka Warriors. “They gave everyone a great template for how you had to play and what it took to be a great team. It was inspirational watching them.”

Saint Ignatius is the defending Kennedy Cup champion, the first Cup for the Wolfpack.

“I had heard about the Kennedy Cup from Loyola Academy players who I knew,” said Saint Viator head coach Tim Benz, who played his high school hockey for Glenbrook South, then focused on state tournament goals and Metro North/Scholastic Cup glory.

Viator had never won the Kennedy Cup but scored the title in Benz’ first two seasons.

“The program was coming off a lull of a few years and we wanted to make a statement about Saint Viator Hockey. So winning the Kennedy Cup was huge,” Benz said. “Winning the Kennedy Cup was our No. 1 goal for the 2017-18 season. On the whiteboard, immediately after tryouts, it was written: Win The Kennedy Cup.”

The Lions played a maximum nine games en route to the 2018 Kennedy Cup as all three series went to the deciding third game.

Years later, Benz vividly recalls the crowds, the pressure, the excitement.

Both Viator Kennedy Cup titles were over Saint Ignatius,

“It was very emotional, a phenomenal feeling winning the Kennedy Cup, especially in our first season with both of my brothers as assistant coaches,” Benz said.

Every Cup-winning team has its name and the corresponding year engraved on the trophy, which has been replaced several times over the decades. After all, there was a rule early on that, if a team won it three years in a row, it got to keep the trophy. That rule has since been disbanded.

“To join the list of great Kennedy Cup-winning teams, with some really great players on those teams, that means a lot,” said Benz, who sports championship rings for each title – another tradition that teams have adopted.

“The actual Kennedy Cup has a wood base, multiple levels, with a cup and a hockey player. It’s a cool-looking trophy. It’s not flashy; it’s just very classic-looking. And quite an honor to win.”

Saint Viator held school assemblies both years the team won the Cup.

Fabbrini admitted that he didn’t truly understand or appreciate the significance of the Kennedy Cup when he joined the Fenwick varsity during his junior season, mostly because he didn’t play for Fenwick as a freshman or sophomore.

But as a junior, he met an alumnus from the late-1960s at the rink.

“That really helped put it into perspective,” Fabbrini said. “He came to watch practice and stopped a couple of us on our way off the ice to tell us how much Fenwick Hockey meant to him and how proud he was to see us playing in the Kennedy Cup finals against Loyola Academy. He was on the team that won in 1968 and talked a little about his experience, but mostly how proud he was to see Fenwick Hockey back competing for and winning the Kennedy Cup.”

Fenwick won five consecutive Kennedy Cup titles, from 2003-2007, but none since.

Fabbrini wants to change that.

“As a coach, it would mean everything to be able to bring a Kennedy Cup back to Fenwick,” he said. “As an alum and now (the school’s) head coach, I want us to compete for a Kennedy Cup championship every year so these guys can have all the same experiences my teammates and I had.”

Such as, his junior season. Fenwick defeated Marist in game 3 in the first round and Loyola in game 3 in the finals – and Fabbrini scored a goal in game 3 to seal the victory.

Winning that first Kennedy Cup was “a little bit of a surprise, I guess,” he said. “We had won the league, but Loyola was really good my junior year. And old. And mean. But we won the league during the regular season on one of the last days, so I think that gave us some confidence going into that series. Our goaltender, Dave Nahlik, was the best goalie in the state. Anytime you go into a series with the better goalie, I think you feel like you have a chance. I think beating them in three games also gave us a ton of confidence going into the State Championship game, since we were playing them again at the United Center.”

As a senior, Fabbrini and Fenwick against faced Loyola in the finals. Game one was played at Ridegeland Common Ice Arena in Oak Park, with a loud, standing-room-only crowd packed in. Same crowd watched game two of the series, when Fenwick routed Loyola, 12-3, in Lincolnwood to clinch the title.

“There were a lot of Fenwick students (attending), including a group of guys known as the Bucket Boys, who came to every Kennedy Cup playoff game (during my) junior and senior year as an informal drum crew,” Fabbrini said. “They somehow made it onto the ice; our coaches Dave Cromer and Mike Breslin, had their kids on the ice too. It really felt like that is what Fenwick Hockey and the Kennedy Cup are all about.”

Fabbrini’s ties to the Kennedy Cup date back to his pre-teen days when he was skating at the frozen tennis courts in Forest Park. Several Fenwick players came out to skate too and they let Fabbrini play with them for what seemed like two or three hours, he said. “They were so nice to me and eventually invited me to come watch them play at Ridgeland the next day,” Fabbrini said. “I watched them play and right then and there I decided I was going to play for Fenwick someday. I didn’t (play for Fenwick) my freshman and sophomore years because I listened to AA coaches who told me that high school hockey was no good. Sophomore year, I went and watched Fenwick play Loyola in the state semifinals, and the rink was packed. It was a great game that Fenwick won to advance to the state title. That was all I needed to see to decide to play for Fenwick the rest of my high school career. 

“I have been fortunate to play on some really competitive teams and have some very special experiences. We won two Kennedy Cup (titles) and two Illinois High School State Championships at Fenwick, two CSCHL and two National Championships at the University of Illinois; and I was chosen to represent Team USA twice as a coach for the World University Games. But I can honestly say that memories from winning the Kennedy Cup are some of my fondest to this day. I think those teams at Fenwick really helped show me what it takes to be a winner and helped shape my hockey career in a major way.”

Fabbrini wants today’s Fenwick skaters to also hoist the Kennedy Cup, sooner than later. The Kennedy Cup is “a big part of why I came back to coach at Fenwick,” he said. “The history of the league, the culture and work ethic required to win it are things we have talked about and focused on from day one. I told the team and the parents at our introductory meeting that I believed we can compete for a Kennedy Cup this year, and that doing so was one of our major goals for the season. Fenwick upset Providence last year, so they got a taste of what it means to play meaningful hockey late in the season. Everything we’ve done all year has been building to this point, and I think we have positioned ourselves well to make a run in the playoffs.”

Fenwick has hoisted the Cup 10 times, including four of the first six Kennedy Cup titles (1964, 1966, 1968, 1969). But the Friars’ last Kennedy Cup came in 2007.

Bob Higgins, now 70, was Fenwick’s backup goalie on the 1968 team and the starter on the 1969 team, though an injury during the ’69 season kept him off the ice during the Kennedy Cup. A lawyer who retired last month, Higgins splits his time living in Arizona and suburban Huntley. He is an active cyclist, golfer and softball player still.

And he never hesitates to talk about the Kennedy Cup.

“That ’68 (Fenwick) team was a special, special team,” he said. “Despite only having four teams in the league (at the time), it was a very competitive league (and tournament) meant a lot to us (to win).”

Fenwick was the No. 1 seed for the ’68 Kennedy Cup and ultimately faced Brother Rice for the title. The Friars lost game won before winning the next two.

“The Kennedy Cup is the holy grail (of the CCHL) and winning meant the world to us,” Higgins said. “From the day we started skating in the fall, that was our goal, to win the Kennedy Cup.”

Those 1968-69 teams had reunions at 25-years and also 50-years, and they included a skate during the 50th reunion.

Fenwick finished 12-12, fifth-place in the 9-team CCHL this season.

Saint Ignatius, Providence, Benet Academy and Brother Rice are the favorites for the 2023 Kennedy Cup.

Notre Dame College Prep finished 4-19 (8th place) in the regular season under first-year director of hockey operations and head coach Mike Silenzi, who has hockey lineage to the Kennedy Cup – as a player and coach.

“I grew up in the Franklin Park area and he CCHL was the first league I can remember,” said Silenzi, 60. “Winning the Kennedy Cup would mean the icing on the cake of my career.

“I told my team at the beginning of the season that our first goal is to win the oldest, most prestigious award: the Kennedy Cup.”

Martin, now 59 and living in Rolling Meadows, still recalls the Kennedy Cup action from the 1980s. “The play was so intense and there were just so many great players in the Catholic League (at the time), so many who went on to play major college hockey and pro hockey,” he said. “If you won the Kennedy Cup back then, your team had several players with major college potential.

“Winning the Kennedy Cup, then and now … you had to earn it, and still do. It was an amazing badge of honor for those teams because of the hard work necessary to win.”

Benet is a 4-time Kennedy Cup winner (2013, 2015, 2020 and 2021), all under the leadership of head coach Jon Grzbek. Ferguson gets an assist for Benet’s score. “He asked if he could borrow the Kennedy Cup while I was at Rita, to show his kids, to help motivate them,” Ferguson said.

Mount Carmel has slipped away from its Kennedy Cup glory, as the Caravan went 0-22-1 this season in the CCHL with the fewest goals scored of all teams and the most goals scored-against. But still, the proud program has ties to the Kennedy Cup and eyes a return to more favorable games.

Caravan head coach Tom Mayhan won the Cup in 1993 and Caravan JV head coach Bryan Carr was the Marist team captain as a senior in 1991 and he too won the Cup that season.

Ferguson was in eighth-grade when he went to watch Kennedy Cup action at SIA. It was 1975, game three between St. Rita and Fenwick. “I still today remember watching that game. The place was packed; you couldn’t move,” he said. “I remember watching Rita getting the Kennedy Cup trophy.

“Sure, kids in Chicago always dream of playing for the Blackhawks in NHL. But all I ever wanted to do was win the Kennedy Cup. I was in awe of those Kennedy Cup-winning players while in eighth-grade.” So he practiced street hockey at home in his driveaway, and Ferguson was pretending to be a Catholic League legend – and he still today recalls names of CCHL players from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and not just those who went on to future hockey fame.