By Jim Clare
While the Chicago Blackhawks, Rockford Ice Hogs, and Chicago Wolves garner most of the attention from the casual hockey fan in the winter, there is another hidden gem that exists right in our own backyard, Junior Hockey. Boasting seven franchises and representing all 3 tiers, the Junior Hockey scene is thriving in Illinois.
What exactly is Junior Hockey? Look at it as the bridge between youth/high school hockey and college hockey. In today’s hockey environment, players rarely move straight to college hockey without spending some time in Juniors. My own son played for two years in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) before moving on to play for the NCAA Division III Salve Regina Seahawks.
Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III Junior Hockey clubs all strive to develop players to their fullest potential and fulfill their aspirations of playing college hockey, whether that’s for a NCAA Division I or Division III College or ACHA college club hockey team. Illinois’ Junior teams also greatly benefit the communities in which they call home through their direct involvement in community outreach and youth hockey programs.
In this two-part article I will highlight each of the seven Junior Clubs calling Illinois home, the Tier I Chicago Steel (USHL) and Bloomington Thunder (USHL), the Tier II Springfield Junior Blues (NAHL) and the Tier III Chicago Jr. Bulldogs (NA3HL), Peoria Mustangs (NA3HL), Decatur Blaze (USPHL), and Chicago Cougars (USPHL). Part I will focus on the Tier I and Tier II teams and Part II on the Tier III teams. But before we begin, let’s take a quick look at the differences between each of the Junior Hockey levels:
Tier I: The USHL is the only Tier I league in the United States. Players skate for free with no billeting charge. It is the most recruited junior league in the States and they placed over 300 kids into Division 1 College Hockey last year.
Tier II: The NAHL is the only Tier II league in the United States. Players skate for free but pay a monthly billeting fee. It is a highly recruited league for both Division 1 and 3 college hockey. The NAHL placed over 210 kids into NCAA schools last year.
Tier III: This level of junior hockey encompasses multiple leagues across the United States. It is a pay-to-play level of junior hockey. It is more akin to how AAA hockey works, players pay a fee to play and a monthly billet expense.
Tier I – USHL
The Bloomington Thunder plays their home games out of the Pepsi Ice Center in Bloomington, Illinois, and is one of the newest USHL franchises in the league. Finishing up their first year in the league, Kurt Silcott, Vice President and General Manager said, “The Thunder learned a lot last year and plan to build on a successful first season. We are trying to develop good hockey players, but also good people. Our players live locally with host families (billets) and our players really try to engage and be part of the community. As people learn that our players are their neighbors and part of their community we expect that we will see more and more people become engaged with our team”. Community was a common theme in our discussion with Silcott, and he went on to say, “Our players attend on average two community events per week along with their game and practice schedule”.
Brian Tosti, PR Coordinator, added “This team has a job in front of them and it is to make an impact both on and off the ice. In the first year we really began by kicking-off players in the community and the feedback was impressive”. Tosti went on to explain that fans can expect an improved game day experience as well, “Our game presentation has increased 10 fold this off-season with the addition of a new video board and HD highlights and replays. Overall the fans are going to be impressed with the increase from the first season to the second in every way possible”. The Thunder provides a family first environment at the Pepsi Ice Center, but Tosti stresses that they are a hockey team first with some of the best players both in the USHL and the country playing for them.
The Thunder are not only charged with performing on the ice, but also attracting fans to their games. They have an extensive advertising campaign including TV, radio, print, and social media. Organizations in the USHL rely heavily on sponsors to help provide a great experience for both the players and fans. According to Silcott, Bloomington has added a number of new sponsors including the MCO/Hy-Vee blimp which drops coupons on game day. But one of the most important areas of focus is on the youth hockey population. Attract the young player and they bring along the adults. The Thunder players and coaches are on the ice with youth hockey programs as guest instructors throughout the year. Additionally, they run camps and clinics for all ages.
But ultimately it is about the hockey. The USHL and Bloomington Thunder provide a unique opportunity for the fans of Central Illinois. As Tosti explains, “The fans can expect a game that is on par with any other professional game and even better than anything they have seen before in Bloomington. The players are on the upswing of their careers and are not only playing for NCAA Division I college scholarships, but also the prospect of playing in the NHL. When players come to Bloomington that are being selected in the first round of the NHL draft, that’s something you can always get excited about. You are seeing these players for a fraction of the cost to see them at an NHL rink and getting to know them on a personal level off the ice – that’s something that is much harder to do at the NHL level.”
Tier I – USHL
The Chicago Steel have been a long standing member of the USHL in the Chicagoland area. This year should prove to be an exciting year of change for the club. New ownership and a new facility (Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Illinois) should provide new energy for the organization and its fans. With millions of hockey fans in Northeast Illinois, the Steel offers access to some of the best players in the world. As Katie Sack, Community Relations Director, states, “The fans are going to see the future of the NCAA and NHL when they come to a Steel game. Fans should expect high energy, fast-paced hockey. Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, John Moore and Tom Gilbert are some NHL stars that have come through the USHL. Year after year NHL teams draft more USHL players than any other Junior League. The best ‘16-20 year old hockey’ in the country takes place in the 17 USHL cities.”
In order to share that experience with the fans, the Steel are deeply engrained in the local youth hockey community and the community at large. Sack went on to tell us that not only do the Steel players attend youth hockey practices weekly, but go beyond the rinks to reach the local youth. The Steel offer a Hockey 101 program for the local schools. “Our players will come in and teach gym class for a day. “This creates the opportunity for many children who have never picked up a hockey stick the chance to experience the game for the first time,” says Sack. Additionally the Steel offer youth hockey teams the chance to come out to the arena and sit on the bench for warmups, be on the blue line for the National Anthem and skate on the ice during an intermission.
Sack states, “The Steel attracts fans through grassroots marketing, social media and being involved in the community. The biggest form of advertisement for the Steel is word of mouth. Most fans that attend a Steel game will come back. We provide family friendly entertainment at an affordable price. Between family four packs, group packages, and affordable suites, fans and companies can find way to spend a fun evening out.”
Tier II – NAHL
Springfield, Illinois, has been a longtime supporter of Junior Hockey. The Jr. Blues NAHL team, who play out of the Franklin P. Nelson Center in Springfield, offers Central/Southern Illinois a chance to witness great hockey as part of the United States’ only Tier II league. Like the USHL, the NAHL offers fans a chance to see future USHL, College, and NHL players right there in their local community each weekend. As Tony Zasowski, Head Coach and General Manager said, “Being the only NAHL team in Illinois has benefited our club greatly. We have developed a great pipeline of Chicago players that have played for the Jr. Blues including UCONN commit, Max Kalter (CYA), OSU Commit, Jason Dhooghe (Mission), Vermont Commit, Stefanos Lekkas (Mission); the list can go on and on. Illinois has many great players and it only makes sense that we try to get many of our players from Illinois.
Like all junior teams, fan and community outreach are important to Springfield. “The Nelson Center creates an up close fan experience. Not only is the action on the ice great, but we work hard to make sure we have something for everyone. Our Mascot, Gilly and inflatable slap shot gallery is great for our fans. We also give our fans great access to our players; we regularly have ‘skate with the team’ events, and many fan friendly events”. Zasowski went on to say, “Last season, we gave every youth hockey player a season pass to our games. Plus our coaches and players regularly help with learn to play hockey and Kings’ (Springfield Youth Hockey Association) events. I also hosted a seminar for the Kings’ coaches”.
As part of the NAHL the local Tier III NA3HL teams work closely with Springfield. Zasowski expressed, “We work closely with the Peoria Mustangs and Chicago Jr. Bulldogs. We have used players from there as affiliate players. It is great having two clubs that close in proximity that we know are doing a great job; we can not only get players but possibly assist them with their recruiting efforts”.
Zasowski, an Illinois native, grew up in Chicago playing for CYA and Team Illinois and then went on to play for the Jr. Blues. He is carrying on a great hockey tradition in Springfield.
HEAD TO THE RINK!
We hope you will take in a game and witness some of the best junior hockey the state has to offer in Chicago, Bloomington, and Springfield. If you are a coach, reach out to these teams and bring their players to your practices or club events. If you are just a fan of hockey, it’s a great place to catch a game with the kids and watch the future college and NHL stars up close and personal.
In the next edition of SNAPSHOT we will highlight the Tier III teams in Illinois – The Chicago Jr. Bulldogs, Peoria Mustangs, Decatur Blaze and the newest Junior team in town, the Chicago Cougars.