Evanston Hockey Celebrates…After 50 Years, It’s All Still About Hockey

By Alby Gallun

After 50 Years, It’s All Still About Hockey

When Dean Mathewson had hockey practice, he’d walk around the corner from his house in southwest Evanston to his home rink in Larimer Park. Fashion accessories for his team included garter belts and awkward mouth protectors that made players look like young Hannibal Lecters in training. And if Mathewson wanted a curve on his wooden stick, he often had to make it himself, heating the blade up in boiling water and then bending it between the pipes of a radiator.

“That’s how everybody was doing it, when they couldn’t buy the pre-made ones,” he says.

It was the late 1960s, the Evanston Boys Hockey Association—co-founded by his father, Donald Mathewson, a flour salesman from Minnesota—was in its infancy, and the Robert Crown Center was still just a dream. The toe drag or spin-o-rama had yet to be invented. The butterfly? Not in Evanston in January. Goalies stacked the pads to stop pucks.

The game of hockey, its culture and technology have changed dramatically over the past half century, and the club that became the Evanston Youth Hockey Association has too. It now has so many house and travel teams that it’s outgrowing Robert Crown, which opened in 1975. This winter season, 341 kids are playing for Evanston house and travel teams, up 43 percent from just three years ago.

Over the years, the club has fielded countless winning teams—the Evanston varsity team won back-to-back state championships in the mid-1970s—attracted more girls to the program and groomed players for college careers, a goal of the association from its earliest days.

Until Robert Crown opened, the association’s home ice was an outdoor rink next to Dyche Stadium, now Ryan Field. But house league teams generally practiced and played their games at rinks in Larimer, Bent, Leahy and other parks. Mathewson remembers city officials looking the other way as neighborhood volunteers opened up fire hydrants on a cold night to flood Larimer Park, at Crain Street and Oak Avenue.

“There was a lot of winking and nodding,” he says.

The rink had no boards, but it had a warming hut with a fire pit inside. At some parks, parents would park their cars next to the rinks with their headlights on, so their kids could play in the dark, recalls Andy Pigozzi, who played for Evanston in the 1970s and 1980s. But a lot of the time, the neighborhood rinks offered an opportunity for plenty of pick-up hockey away from the supervision of coaches or parents.

“You’d play until you’d drop,” Pigozzi says.

The association fielded all-star teams—the equivalent of today’s travel teams—that would play other clubs and go to tournaments. The house teams were neighborhood-based: If you lived near Bent Park, you played for the Bent Park team. The Larimer teams that Mathewson played on were a melting pot, with African-American and Hispanic players and kids from various nationalities, he says.

Initially, the players would raise money for the club by selling Evanston Boys Hockey Association window decals for $1. Later, the club would hold annual pizza day fundraisers.

The hockey association took a big leap forward with the 1975 opening of Robert Crown, which the City of Evanston built for $2.5 million. With the growing popularity of hockey, the indoor facility, which has a full-sized and studio rink, was part of 1970s building wave that included the Winnetka Ice Arena and Centennial Ice Rink in Wilmette.

Support for the Evanston project wasn’t universal: Calling the building “The Ice Palace,” Alderman Thomas Brinkmann argued that it mainly served rich families, and that the money would have been better spent on a roller-skating rink or swimming pool for “the masses.” Yet the city scored a coup when it recruited retired Chicago Blackhawk Eric Nesterenko to run its hockey program.

Robert Crown “was awesome when it first opened,” says Pigozzi, who played on the first team to practice there. “It’s amazing it’s lasted as long as it has.”

The club has undergone ups and downs since then, with participation ebbing and flowing and teams that both dominated the competition and struggled to compete. Sean Ahern, father of an Evanston Squirt and Mite, doesn’t remember winning too much when he played in the 1970s and 1980s.

“We always liked to go to the Saddle & Cycle Club (in Chicago), because we were always guaranteed a win, and the parents were guaranteed a stiff drink,” he says.

Del Morris, the club’s current hockey director, remembers the organization being able to field a travel team at each age level when he played for Evanston from 1985 to 1999. His sophomore year, he was goalie on a varsity team that took third in state.

The club struggled after 2000, as the number of players dwindled. One year, it didn’t have enough players to form a Mite travel team, recalls Bob Nauert, a former EYHA board member and president. To fill out its high school roster, the association had to draw kids from outside Evanston for a period.

“We never thought we would fold, but we had doubts about how many teams we could field,” he says.

The concern now is how to find enough ice time for all the club’s teams, a big impetus for the proposed new Robert Crown Center, which could have two full sheets of ice. Today, Evanston has two Bantam travel teams and three travel teams at both PeeWee and Squirt level. It also has a girls U-14 team, two house each teams at Bantam, PeeWee and Squirt level and four at the Mite level. The Evanston Junior Wildkits, which runs the Evanston Mite travel program, has two teams.

Both Morris and Nauert cite the success and popularity of the Blackhawks as a key factor driving the EYHA’s recent strong growth. Wherever the club goes from here, it will continue to be a place where young players forge strong friendships and learn important life lessons, just as Mathewson and his teammates did.

“Hockey requires a great amount of concentration and self-discipline,” former EBHA President David Rodelius told the Evanston Review in 1968. “Someone is always badgering you into losing your temper so you will make a mistake. The boys learn to master themselves as they play the game.”

Even after 50 years, maybe the sport hasn’t changed all that much.

Click here for photos over the years.



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