By Ross Forman
“When I left (the program), there were eight coaches, 60-plus players, a healthy budget, money in reserves, and the ad book and sponsors had never been larger,” Freeman said of an HPHS team that is now a top 10 program on and off the ice.
Freeman built a team, make that, teams to be proud of. He built a legacy – past, present and future.
“When I took the job, I was a single guy living in a studio apartment. Today I have an amazing wife (Ami), three healthy and beautiful children, one of the largest construction companies (Twenty9, Inc.) in Chicagoland, multiple board positions with local charities and many other responsibilities.
“Over 17 years, I grew as a man every day and learned from the mistakes and the positive. There have been some very special relationships made and a lot of people who I have learned a great deal from. While there are so many to thank for their support, their friendship, their leadership and so much more because staying somewhere in the hockey world for 17 years is about so much more than one person.
“I could never have done it without many others’ strength, (so) a special thank-you from the bottom of my heart goes to David Kreisman, Steve Cutler, Victor Rustein, Dave Putlak, Steve Hara, the Mandell (family), the Foxes, Michael Zuckerman, Norm Berger, Carol Jagadeesh, Bruce Mason, Dave Gardner, Steve Goodman and Joe the Mailman. I could not have done this without all of their help and most importantly I want to thank all the hundreds of players. Without their belief in me, their commitment, work ethic, love of the game and passion to express it, I would not have been able to grow the program like we did. THANK YOU ALL, you will never know how much you have all meant to me. Special thank-you to Greg Chudacoff who behind the scenes was very helpful to me and the program.”
Freeman, 42, a Highland Park resident, resigned from the Giants after the 2017-18 season, his 17th at the school. In addition to coaching Highland Park, he also was the Chicago Bulldogs Squirt Central States head coach.
This upcoming season, Freeman will strictly coach the Chicago Bulldogs Pee Wee ‘07 Central States and the Chicago Bulldogs Mite 2011 teams.
Freeman has skated away from the Giants, a team that he admittedly has raised like his own child.
In fact, family was a major factor in Freeman leaving the high school game.
“My sons both are playing, with Ronan now a peewee and Levi playing mite travel, (so), the move from the HPHS bench to theirs was inevitable and the timing had to be now for them. I could not miss anymore of either of their games to coach someone else’s children. I could not come home one more night to a teary-eyed son asking where I was and why was I not at their game. I could not leave our home and not be able to eat dinner with my daughter or help her with her homework. The very thing about high school hockey that allowed me to coach for so long was the late nights, (and that) became the issue because as my daughter Bayla got older she stayed up later and those late nights for hockey started to cause me to miss very precious time with (her).
“We never get time back and my family is my heart, soul. The Giants Hockey Program is imbedded in the fabric of who I am today, (but) they can survive without me.”
Freeman said he hoped he would stay with the Giants for one more season, but this was just the right time.
“I love all the players and did not want to leave them, but this would always be the case and I would always have a group of players that I did not want to leave,” he said. “The program has been my baby I have raised and, ironically, like an 18 year-old ready to leave for college, I feel like the program was ready to leave for college and fend for itself.
“Also and equally as important, I have from day one driven the program to compete in every way everyday on and off the ice. I have pushed the players hard to succeed in the classroom, as citizens and to win every game. The current leadership of the program, for the first time since I have been (at HP), did not value success on the ice as much as I did and that was probably the last deciding factor for me to leave sooner than expected.
“While my top priority has been to develop young men who learn about life through the great game of hockey, I flat out want to win. I take great pride in 15 of my 17 seasons being winning seasons as well as a consistent force in Illinois High School Hockey, being ranked anywhere from 7th in the state to 20th for 15 seasons. The leadership did not want the same things and the club is and will continue to transition to more of a recreational program. My players over the past 17 years gave it all and had a great time; their memories of our teams and our program will last lifetimes. The kids may not remember who scored or who they beat in a tournament, but they will always remember the fun times before or after games, like trips to White Castle or conventions being held at hotels during tournaments or wearing the wrong color jersey out on the ice for warm up for the Deerfield or forgetting to take off skate guards and flying across the ice and, of course, our superior record against Deerfield: 38 wins and only 5 losses in 17 years.”
So what was your HP highlight?
Building a family on the ice and one, he said without hesitation.
“I have grown up with the program and my life is so different now,” Freeman said. “The hockey program was nonexistent to the student body and the high school when I took over. Now, we are in the (daily) announcements, the pep rallies, the yearbook, and are announced at graduation. They carry their heads high as varsity and junior varsity athletes at HPHS.”
Freeman said one of his most memorable games was when the Giants captured the Founders Cup, with captain Brett Winter scoring the game-winning. He also fondly recalled the recent 9-0 win over arch-rival Deerfield.
In addition to coaching Highland Park, both varsity and JV, there also were seasons when he coached the Falcons Midget Major and Midget Minor teams.
Yep, he’s seen plenty of highlight reel goals. But also, there were so amazing players who did not have their names on the scoresheet every night, those who specialized in back checking, defensive skills, willingness to block a shot or just commitment to excellence, he said. Freeman noted such players as Itamar Amrany, Brett Weiss, Tyler Weisman, Sebastien Thomas, Ben Kreisman, Zach Berger, Andrew Krug, Matt Baker, Henry Greenberg, Koby Schneider, Matt Holleb, Willie Goodman, Zac Putlak, Kyler Lederer, Colton Lederer, Cole Rutstein, Ben Gimbel and Jordan Felix.
So who were the top 10 players at Highland Park during Freeman’s run?
Freeman answered but went a little deeper. He noted the amazing play of such Giants as Jordan Cutler, Jason Shape, Robbie Dinschel, Josh Bretts, Liam McCann, Brett Winter, Noah Pickus, Dylan Tischleder, Edward Noortman, Bobby Laing, Alex Tuchman, Alec Shapiro, David Shapiro, Gavin Proeh, Kieran Jagadeesh, Dylan Abt, Jonathan Chudacoff, Eric Mason, Michael Perlmutter and Zak Kalter.
“I’m sure I missed some, and I apologize. There were a lot of players over (close to) two decades, (including former) house league (players who developed into team) captains and top scorers in the league,” he said.
Freeman said the high school game got “much slower, lower scoring, (with) much better skating skill and a huge disparity in talent.”
The high school game is now “faster, more skilled in terms of passing & stickhandling, (with) harder shots and from the first line to the fourth line, the gap is much closer.”
Freeman admitted that it was “harder than I imagined” to reflect back on his 17-year run in Highland Park.
“As I have told the players over the past 17 years, and will tell all players I coach in the future, if the worst thing in your life happens in a hockey rink, you have a blessed life and should be grateful for every day,” Freeman said. “I want to remind all my players to make sure they always have a Mother’s Day Card and at the end of every season to look their parents in the eyes and give them the most sincere thank-you for their time, energy, support and financial commitment to make their hockey careers happen.
“I will always be a Giant and will cheer for the program every game …. who knows maybe one day I return to the Giants bench and coach my boys.”
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.
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