By Ross Forman
The pressure is on Team Illinois, before the first puck has been dropped, before any team even arrives in Pittsburgh for the annual America’s Showcase.
Yes, there’s a huge bulls-eye on every Illinois jersey.
The Illinois team looking for glory under the national spotlight must also carry the weight of the state’s success in America’s Showcase of recent years. Let’s remember, Team Illinois has won the event three of the past four years. Just consider:
- Illinois opened a 2-0 first period lead in the 2016 championship game on goals from Joseph Day and Ryan Hill, then hung on for the 4-2 win over Team Wisconsin. Jacob Rott and Samuel Weiss also scored in the victory.
- Team Pittsburgh built a 3-1 edge in the 2015 championship game, then hung on to win, 4-3, despite tallies from Alex Merritt, Jack Dolby and Adam Czarnecki.
- Team Illinois cruised past Team California 4-1, thanks to a 4-goal second period, to win the 2014 title. David Kellner and Benjamin Brandau each had 1 goal, 1 assist in the championship game. Jake Dillman and Nate Harris also scored.
- Illinois came from behind in the 2013 finals to defeat Pittsburgh, 3-2. Kyle Melton, Jake Novack and Alex Block each scored for Illinois, which trailed 2-1 after the first period, then scored twice in the second for the victory.
“We have so much skill, top to bottom. I’ve never played on a team with this much all-around skill,” said Nicholas Christianson, a senior at Buffalo Grove High School who skated all four years for the co-op BG/H/W Stampede varsity, including the team’s 2016 state championship season. “I think our depth and puck possession game will help us be extremely successful in Pittsburgh, and we have a ton of speed.”
America’s Showcase, which runs April 20-24, was founded as the Chicago Showcase in 1985, and it was held locally through 2009. It moved to Pittsburgh for the 2010 event and renamed America’s Showcase. This year’s event features unique facilities for the boys and girls tournaments: RMU Island Sports Center (boys) and Baierl Ice Complex (girls).
America’s Showcase is the nation’s premier event for high school players to get an opportunity to be scouted by high-level programs, such as prep schools, juniors, college, and beyond.
“It’s such a privilege to share the ice with some of the best high school players and coaches in the state,” said Christianson, 18. “Being selected for the team has always been one of my goals and I’m really looking forward to playing in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a great honor to represent Illinois. Since my sophomore year, this (event) has always been a goal of mine and to have the chance to play one last handful of competitive game for my high school career is amazing.”
Team Illinois opens round-robin play against Missouri Blue, then faces New Jersey and Indiana to reach the playoff round.
The America’s Showcase girls tournament runs April 21-23, and Team Illinois opens against Northern Plains, then battles Atlantic Red and Team Indiana in its next round-robin round games.
More from the Stick of Nicholas Christianson:
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Patrick Kane
Favorite Sport (other than hockey): Football
Best HS uniforms (excluding BG): Evanston
Worst HS uniforms (excluding BG): Maine
Hardest Slapshot on the Illinois Showcase Team: Ryan Kelly (Glenbard)
Who Impresses You The Most On Showcase Team: Jacob Rott and Jake Vennetti (Providence Catholic). “Both are all-around great players. They move the puck very well and have great vision and hands. Also, Colan Fitzgerald (St. Rita) is probably one of the most athletic defenseman I’ve played with. He’s extremely skilled and an excellent playmaker.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.
Photos courtesy of Nicholas Christianson