Illinois hockey is better than ever, and it shows with showcase dominance
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
The quality of high school boys’ hockey in Illinois is on the rise.
That’s evident by Team Illinois’ dominance the last four years in the USA Hockey America’s High School Showcase.
Team Illinois, which is comprised of the top 20 high school skaters in the state, has won the tournament four straight years. The team is hoping to add another trophy this year when the 33rd annual event takes place on April 19-23 in St. Peters, Missouri.
“It’s not so much whether or not we win — although to the boys it’s very important because that’s how they compete, to win — it’s more about who gets seen by how many and which scouts,” said Mike Mullally, Team Illinois manager and AHAI director.
Twenty-four teams will participate in the showcase, which features the best junior and senior high school players from around the country.
“High school juniors and seniors don’t get the same exposure that say a Tier I skater does, because they do a lot of that,” Mullally said. “And so, the showcase was designed to get more exposure for high school students.”
After showcase games, players are approached outside their team locker room by scouts who might want to chat about an opportunity to compete at the next level.
“It’s been so fun,” said Jon Grzbek, who has been Team Illinois’ head coach for the last two years after three years as an assistant. “It’s been really, really rewarding. For some of these kids, it’s an opportunity for them to get looks they should have had. They just didn’t because they play high school hockey.”
Team Illinois has had some success stories over the years of players moving onto post-high school programs. Jack Hatton competed with Team Illinois a few years ago before moving on the St. Louis Jr. Blues. He recently committed to play next season at Division III Saint Mary’s University.
Players love getting the chance to skate in the showcase. Grzbek, who is also the head coach at Benet Academy in Lisle, hears positive feedback every year from his guys.
“It’s the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done,” Grzbek said. “It’s the pinnacle of the top-end play they’ve ever played and with the best teams they’ve ever played on.”
Team Illinois has been on its successful five-year run — playing in the championship game each year, only losing in a shootout in 2013 — because it’s developing young, talented players. In the last five or six years, Illinois participation has grown from 19,000 skaters to over 30,000, according to Mullally.
The process of putting together Team Illinois is arduous. Out of 4,000 high school hockey players in the state, the top 120 are invited to a camp for tryouts in January. There are separate tryouts to whittle down from 120 to 40 and then 40 to 20 with five alternates.
Grzbek and his coaching staff are only allowed to take four kids from any given high school program. Taking that many players from a specific team can create some animosity between rival schools. But foes during the regular season, they might transform into good friends while playing for Team Illinois.
“I think that plays a lot into the chemistry Team Illinois has had,” Grzbek said. “You see them really quiet on the way down there on the bus, and then you see them completely different on the way back home on the bus. That’s all part of the experience.”
The showcase, which spent the first 25 years in Chicago and the last seven in Pittsburgh, gets a new flavor in the St. Louis suburb of St. Peters. It might be a new city, but the usual suspects should be in the mix for the title once again. Team Pittsburgh, Team Wisconsin and Team California have all been to the finals the last five years against Team Illinois.
Grzbek has another solid team this year, but it’s a little different from last year’s squad that went 5-1 in the showcase.
“Last year, we had some really, really top end forwards, forwards that had tender agreements,” Grzbek said. “I don’t have that this year. What I have is probably scoring by committee, so we took an approach with how we picked the team is to hopefully bring some chemistry into the team before the first practice. I did a lot of pairings, which means if I took one of the best forwards I was taking a second forward with him, so that they could start their showcase together.
“My high isn’t as high as it has been. But I will also say this, I think the depth our team is as strong as the depth of our teams in the past. There shouldn’t be much difference there.”
Mullally is expecting another strong tournament from Team Illinois.
“Not to diminish what others have accomplished, but I would expect that this team is fully capable of running the table again this year,” Mullally said. “They’re a good group of kids.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.