By Ross Forman
Liam Burns, a senior forward for Oak Park River Forest in his fourth varsity season, is a team leader who shines at both ends of the ice. He was All-State last year and doubled his efforts to improve over the summer, his coaches said. Burns’ lone negative, if he has one on the ice, it is that he is too unselfish, always looking to pass even if it means passing up a scoring chance of his own.
Burns is one of the main reasons optimism reigns at OPRF – a team looking to improve on last year’s 33-18-1 overall record.
“We had a great season (last year), finishing second in our league to Neuqua Valley in the third game of a best-of-three series. We were a disappointed with our showing in the (state tournament) with a first-round exit, though we learned a lot from that loss, particularly in regards to how we want to start games this season,” said OPRF head coach Dave Dyson. “We’ve had a great start this season, though we have shown some inconsistency in terms of playing three periods of hockey. We are moving the puck very well and showing a lot of desire to win 50/50 battles along the (boards) and in front of the nets. We played a preseason game with Fenwick that had over 1,000 fans (watching), which was the first time we have played them in a long time. We managed to win a nail-biter, 3-2.”
The Huskies are 6-2 so far in the West Division, including wins over Waubonsie Valley and Hinsdale Central, among others.
Wheaton West has raced out to the league lead, followed by Glenbard and Lincoln-Way.
“The league has a lot of balance this season and in the top half, anyone can beat anyone on any given day,” Dyson said. “I believe we should be competing for a league title this year again, but will face tough competition form Wheaton West, Glenbard, and Lincoln-Way.”
OPRF is a great skating and physically strong team, said Dyson, who noted that the squad brings deep depth on offense, defense, and in the net.
“This is a stronger team than last year,” Dyson said. “We have a good mix of upperclassmen and very talented younger players who are committed to playing a great 200-foot team-game. We have a lot more offensive fire-power than the last couple of seasons.”
The Huskies certainly will need it when they play in the annual Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament, held in Wilmette. OPRF faces St. Rita, Maine Township and defending state champion New Trier Green. “It’s very important for us to show well,” Dyson said. “If we want to be considered a top team we have to play well (in the Thanksgiving tournament), so we will have a sense of where we are at this point in the season.”
Dyson, 44, who lives in Chicago, has been coaching for 17 years and is now in his fifth season leading the Huskies. He previously coached Wheaton West and was a coach in Edison, Minn., before relocating to the Chicago area.
Dyson has been a coach for Team Illinois in the annual America’s Showcase, and was the Illinois West Coach of the Year in 2016-17.
Dyson is assisted on the bench by Steve Meagher, as the two have been coaching together since 2008. Dyson said Meagher is “one of the best minds for the game I have ever met.” The two played club hockey together 20 years ago in college and have remained best friends. Dyson even was the best-man at Meagher’s wedding in 2014. “The kids absolutely love Steve and have an unending amount of respect for his knowledge of the game,” Dyson added.
Stan Dubicki is the OPRF goalie coach. “I call him the goalie-whisperer. He is not only a great tactical coach, but more importantly, he knows how to coach the mental part of the position as well as anyone I have met.”
The OPRF coaching staff also includes Strength and Skills Coach David Salamoun, a former Czechoslovakian professional player. “He gets the players to commit to developing their overall athleticism in a way that is fun, but also has a high degree of accountability.”
The Huskies have several key returners this season, including senior defenseman Spencer Smith, serving his second season as team captain. Other key returners:
- Ricky Jones, a sophomore forward who was the leading goal-scorer as a freshman;
- PJ Gonzales, a senior forward and alternate captain;
- Senior Patrick Schmidt;
- Junior defenseman Avery Andersen, returning after an early season-ending injury last year;
- Sophomore forward Sam Pechenka;
- Junior forward Sam Guillot;
- Junior forward Hank Burkett;
- Junior forward Harry Proctor; and
- Senior defenseman Max Pechenka.
“We have a lot of balance with scoring coming from all four lines,” Dyson said. “Liam Burns is a returning All-State player with incredible vision and playmaking ability. Max Goldstein has been an absolute beast, winning battles and scoring in bunches with a rocket snapshot. Ricky Jones continues to build on a 30-plus goal rookie campaign with 12 goals in the first 15 games. PJ Gonzales, Owen Metric and Patrick Schmidt are chipping in at least a point a game. We are extremely balanced.”
The OPRF defense has been very solid so far, with Spencer Smith and Avery Andersen setting the tone with great skating and offensive contribution. “Our overall emphasis has been on team defense and it has proven to be very effective,” Dyson said.
Will Decaro has allowed only 10 goals in his first 5 league games, while Abe Berlin has surrendered 12 goals in 4 games. “Our goaltending tandem is exceptional,” Dyson said. “We graduated an All-State goaltender and have not missed a beat. Both Will and Abe are fierce competitors and have shown the capacity to steal a game for us.”
OPRF has been strong on the penalty-kill so far, and Dyson said the team’s powerplay, “looks strong and is a threat to score every time they are on the ice.”
Key newcomers this season include senior Max Goldstein, who is playing high school hockey for the first time; he had been skating for the Milwaukee Admirals AAA team. DeCaro played for Team Illinois U15 last year. Other key newcomers are:
- Freshman defenseman Grey Burton;
- Junior goalie Abe Berlin;
- Sophomore forward Will Belke;
- Sophomore forward Brett Johnson;
- Junior forward Owen Metric;
- Sophomore forward Conor Roy; and
- Senior defenseman Kevin Vanek.
“I am most proud of the culture of success on and off the ice we have worked to build,” Dyson said. “Not only have we learned to become a winning hockey program on the ice, we are committed to building great leaders off of it as well. We are always among the leaders in academic all-stars and have established a great culture of giving back in big and small ways. Our older players work with the Ice Bears youth program to give back to the game and our annual ‘Hockey Checks Hunger’ food drive in September once again gathered over 20,000 pounds of food for the Oak Park Food Pantry.”
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.