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Lifetime Memories: Illinois Hockey State Championship Celebrates 50 Years

By Ross Forman, 02/24/23, 7:00PM CST


The Girls High School State Tournament is down to the final four: Barrington vs. New Trier and Loyola vs. Fenwick, both games set for Sunday morning, March 5, in Bensenville

Tim Benz cannot win part of the long-running family debate on hockey, at least not yet.

With two younger brothers (Chris and Greg), every family get-together has its share of hockey banter, regardless of the day, month or year. Hockey has been their hook for pushing three decades.

They can debate who has the best slapshot, argue who had the most career goals or assists, or the prettiest goal, even who skated on the best team be it for the Glenview Stars or Glenbrook South High School.

Tim, though, never wins when the topic turns to the Illinois Hockey State Championship: he has never won state, as a player or a coach.

“I ran into some good teams in the playoffs,” said Benz, now the head coach at Saint Viator High School in Arlington Heights.

He played on multiple final four teams at GBS and, the year after he graduated in 2005, the Titans won state – and both of Tim’s brothers were on the GBS team that won state.

Tim takes solace in a bunch of second-place banners.

“I never win that (state championship debate) at Christmas dinner,” said Benz, 36, who looks for, perhaps, a bit of divine intervention to break his state championship draught:

The Illinois Hockey State Championship celebrate 50 years this season … and Saint Viator is playing its 50th season of hockey.

“Hopefully there’ll be a full moon out,” when Viator is playing, Benz said.

State championship glory is that once-a-year moment, at all levels, to prove your team is the best, hands down. A bit of luck, combined with skill, talent, drive, dedication and more leads to once-in-a-lifetime memory. Be it mites or the Red Division of the Illinois High School State Championship, the gloves come off in celebration when the final buzzer sounds.

State Champions are crowned annually after countless practices over a regular season that spans seven months of so.

Everyone wants to win state, at every level.

No one forgets that magic when they receive the state championship banner.

Norm Spiegel, the AHAI president from 1992-98 and former state tournament director, watched hundreds of emotional on-ice celebrations over the years, which truly “shows the growth and consistency of Illinois hockey,” he said. “It’s a great tournament and a lot of great teams have played in it, though not all have won.”

Rockford built a legacy in the high school combined division.

New Trier Green set state championship marks that, likely, never will be matched.

Fremd has a high school legacy in the early 1990s, then Fenwick in the 2000s and so many others.

Some long-running programs, at all levels, have won a bunch. Some, never.

“Everyone who plays in a state championship, it’s a big deal for them for the rest of their life,” long after they retired from the sport, Spiegel said.

Rinks across the state showcase the state championship banners won by the teams that call that rink their home. The Northbrook Sports Complex, for instance, showcases the Glenbrook North High School titles (varsity and JV) that the Spartans have won.

Northbrook also was, years ago, the home of the state championship. Same with Franklin Park, Mount Prospect, Bensenville and other area rinks.

The venue for the final has changed over the years, not the celebrations.

The Chicago Stadium and now the United Center is the host for three high school finals: red division, combined division and girls.

“There have been so many great teams, at so many levels. There’s no way to pick the best, at any level,” Spiegel said. “Playing the high school state championship games at the old Chicago Stadium and now the United Center was and is a huge, huge step for the prestige of the tournament.”

The Central Illinois High School State Championship was held this season, with nine teams vying for honors in mid-February.

The first-ever Illinois High School Hockey State Championship Team, from the 1973-74 season, was the Proviso Pacers, representing Proviso West High School.

“It’s been exciting to see the growth,” of the Illinois state championship over the years, said Jim Smith, former AHAI president. “It’s tremendous to celebrate 50 years.

“To think where the state tournament was 50 years ago, to where it is today, it’s been phenomenal growth.”

Smith was on the ice for hundreds of celebrations, presenting banners to victors and consoling the second-place teams. He even officiated a midget state championship in Glenview years ago – and the game went 7 overtimes.

“I don’t remember the teams; I just remember being completely exhausted at the end of the game,” Smith said.

The high school state championship has even changed names. It was, for years, called the Blackhawk Cup. Now, Loyola Gold, Glenbrook South, Providence Catholic, York, PREP, Waubonsie Valley and others will battle to win the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship.

“Playing at the United Center is tremendous exposure for the sport,” Smith said. “Having the United Center host the state championship game has, without a doubt, grown the sport.

“There’s a chill in the air when the state championship is played at the United Center. It’s an awesome day.”

What’s ahead for the State Championship?

Smith has an idea, a dream: “A centrally-location facility with, oh, four rinks in one venue, so we could have all of the state championships on the same day, or at least the same weekend,” he said. “Imagine what that would be like, with championships for tier 1, tier 2, girls, house leagues, etc.”

Bob Melton, now the head coach at Highland Park High School, has probably won more Illinois hockey state championships than anyone. He coached New Trier Green for 25 years, leading the Trevians to 14 state championships, including 2021 when Green defeated Glenbrook North, 1-0.

“Teams that win championships are blessed with the most skilled players – and Bob was fortunate to have that at New Trier,” Smith said.

Smith’s tie to the Illinois Hockey State Championship dates back to the mid-1970s and, without hesitation, he said it “never” gets old watching a state final.

“You can always see the excitement of the players, the anticipation of the players, the energy in the rink,” he said. “You also see the nervousness of the player, whether he or she is 6 years-old or 16.

“For so many players, over so many years, the Illinois Hockey State Championship is a lifetime memory.”