By Ross Forman
One day last fall, a small group got together in Wilmette for an appreciation party of longtime coach Rafe Aybar, who had been battling esophageal cancer since August 2016. Norm Spiegel and Jim Smith joined as a surprise for Aybar, knowing his health was deteriorating.
They wanted him to know that, yes, he was being inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame and the formal ceremony was slated for Jan. 28 – and of course they hoped he could attend.
Aybar ultimately was not able to attend, and instead was represented by his son and daughter, Harrison and Madeline – and about 60 friends. Aybar could only watch the ceremony live, while with his wife, Jill, on his phone.
Aybar passed away Feb. 5. He was 64.
“Thank goodness that happened,” before he passed, said Randy Jordan, former president of the Wilmette Hockey Association, of his Hall of Fame induction. “Rafe touched so many hearts, and so many kids are better because of him. If you’re going to have a legacy, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Aybar lived in Wilmette and was the proprietor of Aybar Skate; he coached locally for decades. His playing career included a season in a Junior league in Manitoba, Canada, in the early-1970s.
His coaching started in the Niles Park District, and most of his coaching over the years was with mites and squirts. Some who he coached and instructed have since skated in the NHL.
Aybar taught/coached the youth hockey Niles Sharks, (later becoming the Niles Rangers), to several NIHL championships in the 1970s. In the early-1980s, he coached and taught in Glenview for the Glenview Stars. He then moved on to Wilmette Hockey Association and coached their teams to several championships through the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s.
He was still involved with the Wilmette Braves, and was a coach/instructor for 44 years.
“Rafe always had a smile on his face; he loved what he was doing, and it showed,” Jordan said. “He was like a pied piper with the kids; they all gravitated to him and he made them all feel great about themselves. He had an ability to correct and critique … with a twinkle in his eye. The kids never felt like they were being ripped into when they were being critiqued.”
Scott Zaban, a longtime local referee who lived in Glenview and now officiates in the Washington D.C. area, still recalls first meeting Aybar in the coach/referee room at Centennial Park Ice Rink in Wilmette in the early-1990s.
“Rafe always had a smile on his face; he loved what he did, and he genuinely cared about the kids he coached. It’s probably 15-plus years since I’ve last seen him, (but) I still remember that smile,” Zaban said.
Jordan, who noted how Aybar kept his skates on for hours upon hours, added: “He had a passion, resilience to make hockey the most enjoyable time of a kids’ life … and that was so obvious. He wanted everyone to have a great time at the rink.”
Bill Martin, who played with Aybar in the old Franklin Park Ice Arena Check B league in 1983, said Aybar was an incredibly innovative teacher of hockey skills. “No one taught power-skating like Rafe. His outside edge drill concepts were light years ahead of everyone – and still are,” Martin said. “Rafe had the ability to teach and explain concepts in ‘plain language,’ so all could understand.”
Martin and Aybar taught together for the Prosports Experience – Blackhawks Camps and Clinics. “He was such a strong instructor and I felt so privileged that I could teach with him,” Martin said. “It was such a lofty standard to try and teach at his level. He forced all Illinois coaches to raise their level to ‘compete’ with Rafe’s instruction.”
Former AHAI president Mike Mullally simply said, “Rafe’s passing is a huge loss to the hockey community. He was everything to so many kids.”
Michael Verdonck was an assistant coach for three years in Wilmette, and he tagged Aybar as, “a coaching institution.”
“He was very passionate about skating. The kids and parents loved him. I never heard anyone say anything negative about Rafe,” Verdonck said.
Tom Finks, Director of Coaching for the Wilmette Hockey Association, recalled Aybar’s classic, brown, old-school hockey gloves – and his swagger, which everyone envied.
“He would say (that) he wants the kids to ‘get it, own it, do it.’ In everything he did, he was on the kid’s side. I can assure you lots of hockey coaches now ‘get it and own it,’ thanks to Rafe Aybar,” Finks said.
“During his rough health patch, Rafe’s toughness, effort and commitment to the kids and the program was nothing but stellar. Rafe could have just showed up and gone through the motions … (and) nobody would have blamed him. But he really performed. He was playing hurt and did an amazing job. He represented the height of courage and grace this season—something beyond hockey.”
Spiegel knew Aybar for 40 years, and Aybar instructed Spiegel’s son Jason and daughter Nikki – and made better skaters out of both, Spiegel said.
“Rafe meant a lot to the hockey community, especially on the North Shore. He was a fixture on the North Shore.”
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.