By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
Yale awaits Geneva native after one more go-round on home ice
Graham Lillibridge can certainly attest to that. The Illinois native came home last year and played phenomenal defense for the Chicago Steel, helping the program win its first Clark Cup as the United States Hockey League (USHL) champion.
The 18-year-old now enters his third and final season playing junior hockey before heading off to college next fall.
It’s been a fun ride on the ice for Lillibridge, who grew up playing hockey in Geneva, Illinois before transitioning to the powerhouse Chicago Mission program. The only time Lillibridge has ever played for an out-of-state team was in 2015-16, lacing up for the Muskegon Lumberjacks. In May 2016, he was traded to the Steel in a homecoming.
The Steel play their home games at the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, which is only about a 10-minute drive from Lillibridge’s parents. His family is able to attend all the home games, and he has the luxury of living at home and sleeping in his own bed.
“It’s definitely a really good thing for me, I think it’s the best thing that’s happened for me,” said Lillibridge, who will play his collegiate hockey at the Division I level at Yale. “It’s funny how everything comes full circle. I grew up and started playing here at Fox Valley with the Cyclones, and eventually now I’ve got to come back and play junior hockey here.
“Also, it’s nice to kind of show kids that I either go to school with or people in the community what junior hockey is all about. It’s very different than any other sport, and it’s just kind of cool to get to show them what I’ve been doing and what I’m going to continue to do.”
Having Lillibridge come up through the Illinois hockey system speaks volumes of the talent coming out of the state.
“I think it just speaks to their commitment to their youth programs, their commitment to hockey in general in this area,” first-year Steel coach Mark Abalan said. “This is a hockey area, people love hockey here … obviously with the Blackhawks, the Wolves in the American [Hockey] League and just great youth hockey. This is a hockey hub in the United States, and so I think it’s great. It’s great that we have a local kid. It’s a great story; it’s good for our organization.”
Lillibridge is good for the organization on the ice, too. In 2016-17, he logged 28 points (four goals, 24 assists) in 59 regular-season games. Lillibridge stepped up his game in the postseason and tallied 10 assists in 14 games.
“I’m definitely looking to add to my point total, but you can’t just merely measure success on points and that’s not necessarily what I need to worry about,” Lillibridge said. “Points will take care of itself as long as I’m playing the right way and showing up every day and working hard and putting the time in.”
Lillibridge isn’t relied on as a big-time scorer; it’s his other intangibles on the ice that make him a well-rounded player and leader for the Steel. He’s one of Abalan’s captains this season.
“I’m going to lean on him for a lot of things,” Abalan said. “The kind of leader he is is the kid who just shows up every day and goes about his business the right way and he’s a really good human being. I think for me, that’s where it starts.”
After two years of playing in the USHL, Lillibridge knows what it takes to succeed in the league. This year, he’ll play a new role on the team as one of the older, seasoned veterans for the Steel.
“Last year, it was a new team for me and there were a lot of older guys,” Lillibridge said. “This year, I’m in more of a leadership role and looking to take ownership in that and lead by example on and off the ice for the young guys. Hopefully pass on some traits or things that I’ve learned through the years of playing in this league.”
At just 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, Lillibridge is generally the smallest defenseman on the ice. But he doesn’t let his stature hamper his playing style.
“You definitely just got to use your brain and your feet,” Lillibridge said. “With your brain, you’ve got to stay on the D side and stay between the man and the net. Also, use your brain to get good positioning on them and then use your feet whether it’s to dictate time and space to get where you want him to go.”
Lillibridge uses his ability to think quickly and make smart decisions to his advantage.
“What separates him from a lot of other defensemen is he’s able to connect the dots, break the team out,” Abalan said. “He’s a good transition defenseman. He’s going to be a power play defenseman for me, he gives you that element. He’s at the high end I would say of the league as far as just hockey IQ and puck decision making.”
Abalan has been watching Lillibridge play hockey for about five years and he’s excited for the chance to coach him in his final season of juniors.
“He’s going to have a career in this game, and he’s a big piece for us this year,” Abalan said. “As a coach, it’s the kind of guy you’re lucky to have him, because you don’t always have a guy like this: third-year junior, mature, good kid, leader. All those things that are going to make our hockey team better.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.