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Honoring Its Past, Brother Rice Brings One Goal This Season: Win The Kennedy Cup

By Ross Forman, 10/12/23, 1:00PM CDT


When Brother Rice kicks off its Chicago Catholic Hockey League (CCHL) season on Thursday, October 12, against Marmion Academy, the Crusaders will honor their past and clearly show its roster what the goal is for the season, and every season.

Before the game, Brother Rice will honor its 2000-2001 team that won the Kennedy Cup as the Catholic League champion, the last Brother Rice team to win the Kennedy Cup. The 2001 Crusaders then, on Friday, October 13, will be inducted into The Circle of Champions, the Brother Rice Athletic Hall of Fame. The 2001 team is part of the school’s 13th induction class and will be introduced at halftime of the October 13, homecoming football game against Montini Catholic.

“The tradition of the Catholic League is deep,” said Paul Manning, in his ninth season as Brother Rice head coach. “I had the pleasure of playing four years in the league and they were memorable. Winning the Kennedy Cup was something you never forget; the friendships and experiences run deep. 

“This league has seen (former) NHL (players) Chris Chelios and Eddie Olczyk (play for the Kennedy Cup), along with many outstanding individuals who coach and develop kids to be young adults. Current coaches like Andrew Schlie, Jon Grzbek, Nick Iacancio and Tom Mayhan all played in this league. The CCHL is in their blood and they give back like their coaches did. Legendary coaches like John Duran, Tom Kurow, Jim Misiora and Rich Blakey (also are part of the Kennedy Cup lore) and are not forgotten.”

Manning graduated from Mount Carmel in 1988 and was a three-year varsity right wing. His Caravan teams won the state championship and the Kennedy Cup three times (1986, 1987 and 1988).

“The Kennedy Cup was/is EVERYTHING,” Manning said, echoing the sentiment of every Catholic League player: winning state is great, but if you don’t win the Kennedy Cup, it’s a losing season.

“As a kid, you learn how to be a teammate and sharing those victories was exhilarating,” Manning said. “Times were different in the 1980s with no social media or other distractions. It was only about us; we all miss those days, but that is why we coach. At the time, we only cared about winning the Kennedy Cup.

“Today, it still kills me every time we lose (in the Kennedy Cup).

Manning, who lives in the Beverly area and coached in the St. Jude organization for nine years before accepting the Brother Rice post, added: “The Kennedy Cup drove me as a player, and has helped drive me as a coach. We strive to get our kids to that moment. We have not succeeded yet, but we keep working hard to get there. We want our last game of the year to be a W.”

Especially this season as the Catholic League celebrates its 60th year – and the 60th year logo was designed by Coach Manning’s son, RJ, 22, who was a 4-year defenseman for the Crusaders. RJ then played ACHA hockey at St. Norbert College and now lives/works in Baltimore with his former Brother Rice teammate Ethan McCarthy. 

“RJ took pride playing in this league and thought the Cup needed to be shown off on the patch,” Manning said. “I thought it was well done and it’s cool that we can look back to the 60th anniversary logo as a little more special in the Manning household.”

Brother Rice had a memorable run in the 2023 Kennedy Cup, stopping Fenwick in the best-of-three series. But the Crusaders were eliminated by eventual champion Saint Ignatius, which will skate for a third consecutive Kenndy Cup in 2024.

Fenwick, Benet Academy and Providence Catholic also look to be strong contenders for the ’24 Kennedy Cup.

But, “until Ignatius is taken down, they are for sure the team to beat,” Manning said.

“We will need to be perfect (to win the Kennedy Cup), stay out of the penalty box and the power play needs to show success. We have outstanding goaltending so if they continue on that path we will compete until the end.

“We are a young program this year with four seniors and three juniors. The focus when we begin the year is to develop roles for all players and continue to develop them from a systems standpoint to play against anyone.”

Brother Rice has 26 returning players in its program and 20 freshmen.

Forwards Jack Keaty and James Esposito, defenseman Nathan Wilczak and goaltender Deven Stillo will be key.

“Since we are so young, we need to stay healthy. If that happens, we will compete all year,” Manning said. “We have six freshmen and 3 sophomores who can step up if needed from the JV, however, we would prefer they develop their game and gain more confidence at the JV level. If called upon, every kid is skilled enough to play at the varsity level.

“With 20 freshmen, we will have a solid JV program which creates excitement for the future.”

The JV opened CCHL play with back-to-back wins.

“Defensively, we work very hard and that sets us apart – these kids don’t give up,” Manning said. “They work hard every shift. Our starting goaltender, Deven Stillo, is a returning varsity junior who played well in the Kennedy Cup playoffs last season and we are looking at him to continue his solid play, along with Nick DiPasquale who has impressed when asked to relieve Deven.”

Returning all-star center Jack Keaty is primmed for a big year. He participated in the CCHL/SHL All-Star game last season and impressed both benches.

“We have a young nucleus that starts with sophomores James Esposito and Jack Gaskin, along with newcomers Joe Moonan, Dominic Casale and Matt McGuffage. We are looking for senior returners Chris and Jake Surma to have breakout seasons. Our power play needs to be dynamic and with James Esposito, Jack Keaty and Jack Gaskin, they will lead the way.”

Nathan Wilczak is a returning junior and will anchor the defense. “He is a dynamic player who can take over the game,” Manning said. “We are looking to senior Tommy Witt to be our team leader; he breaks down game film and can analyze other teams better than most coaches. Sophomore Jonathan Esposito was asked last year to transition from forward to defense due to our inexperience on the back end and has impressed the staff. He will be a top defenseman this season and moving forward.”

Mike Wingard is a transfer from the west suburbs and “is doing real good things on the back end,” Manning said. “Mike is learning our systems and is gaining confidence every day.”

Sophomore defenseman Jackson Szfranski also will play a key role.

James Esposito looks be the breakout player. “He was a dynamic freshman who only had two checking years under his belt and (yet we asked him) to step into the varsity level against 17- and 18-year-old kids, which is tough. He is very skilled and if he uses his teammates and listens to leaders like Witt and Keaty, good things will happen. We look at him to be a top 10-point scorer in the league this year.”