By Ross Forman
Mark your calendars now, when Deerfield plays arch-rival Highland Park on Wednesday, Nov. 21 – their traditional battle in front of an overflow, raucous crowd at The Glacier Ice Arena in Vernon Hills – it might well be the most entertaining game of the season.
Randy Schlesinger takes over this season as head coach at Deerfield, so he quickly has learned that the pre-Thanksgiving game against Highland Park is a must-win, period.
Anthony Booth takes over this season as head coach at Highland Park, so he quickly has learned that the pre-Thanksgiving game against Deerfield is a must-win, period.
Start the countdown clock now for that opening faceoff.
“The players take (the rivalry against Highland Park) very seriously, and that was all I needed to see. Rivalries make the games go round, I just hope we keep it in line in the stands so we can continue to build excitement for the competition,” Schlesinger said. “Plans have started (to promote the pre-Thanksgiving game). We’re getting that Trump balloon and remaking it to look like Anthony Booth. We have a few other ideas, (too).”
Schlesinger, 53, lives in Chicago and is the new Deerfield hockey director and head coach. He has been coaching since 1998 with multiple teams each season. He has been coaching high school hockey since 2006, most recently with New Trier Gray, which skated a varsity schedule, but was that school’s fourth varsity.
“This is a complete staff move, and we are very excited to join the Deerfield program,” Schlesinger said. “It’s an enthusiastic community; the players work hard and are disciplined; and we plan to bring the level of play up as we move forward. Our assistant hockey director, Dan Kaster, and director of goaltending, Corey Rybka, provide strong support across both teams. Carl Johanson and Luke Lovcik are assistant head coaches of varsity and JV, respectively; each brings a strong background and a knack of reaching the players. Tom Schlesinger (will focus on) skill work on both teams, and he gives us a paramedic on the bench. Each of these guys has been coaching for several years. They bring a variety of experience and coaching ideas, yet we’ve all been together a while, so we are on the same page. The ability to bring along staff was a big part of the decision to change. It’s a great step-up opportunity for each.”
Schlesinger has coached in Skokie, Northbrook, Wilmette and Winnetka, plus at Glenbrook North and New Trier. He was an assistant with GBN for state championships in 2007 and 2008, plus titles with Northbrook peewee AA (2005) and Northbrook Bantam B (2010). His teams also have been state runners-up with New Trier JV (2014), New Trier Gray (2018) and Winnetka Bantam B (2013). Schlesinger has coached league championships with GBN (2007, 2008), New Trier JV (2015), New Trier Gray (2014), Winnetka Bantam Silver (2012) and Northbrook peewee Elite (2005).
Schlesinger has coached more than 1,000 players and more than 2,500 games.
“It’s that really cool nervousness you get when you take a chance. What is life without risk? Hockey is a passion for us, not a job, and we had a pretty set situation. (We) could have just rode that and enjoyed it for many more years,” Schlesinger said.
But then Deerfield came along.
“I met the board during the interview process and was impressed with the energy,” he said. “As we got into spring events, we realized how lucky we are to have players who, without question, play because they love the game. We don’t want to be a program where the end is more important than the path. As we worked through spring and met with each family, we learned how supportive the parents and fans are. Spring was a whirlwind, but it positioned us to come together for a fun start this fall. One other intriguing note (is), I’ve been around quite a few high school teams, (and) these players are very close. That’s a great place to start.
“We are very excited to be in a program where the focus is on our efforts and teams. We had nice support before, but now we have the entire board’s efforts on our teams, and fans in the stands, (which) will be cool.
“The history here was the hidden gem that I knew going in. I’ve been around coaches like Tom Gullen and Bill Kilcoyne that wax poetic on Deerfield of the past. Once Deerfield High School Hockey reached out, I went into research mode. We have plans to leverage our past into today’s events with some fun pregame stuff.”
Deerfield will return 12 players this fall, and the Warriors had 27 players over the spring rotate into varsity minutes.
“Tryouts will be tough,” Schlesinger said. “Some of these guys are working very hard as a group now, others I hope are keeping up on their own on their vacations and at camps. We are on and off ice three days during the week, then we have captain’s practices on Saturdays. The summer effort of the players has been tremendous. We (will) take it up a notch in August leading into tryouts with more skates, and then we added dates to our tryout to give them the best look. We have some talented younger players joining us, competing against players from last season’s JV squad for the few spots on our top team. I’m told there have never been cuts at Deerfield, at least not in memory. We expect to have cuts this fall from a very competitive JV squad, with a growth to three teams next spring.”
Schlesinger said the goal for the 2018-19 season is centered on attitude, effort, discipline, teamwork and sportsmanship. Schoolwork and safety are ahead of those, and family is of course a priority for the program. “When we get all that right, we have the potential to learn a lot of hockey, and the teams will perform above expectation. It’s a time-proven formula,” Schlesinger said.
“Off the ice, we have a strong community service program involving Cornerstone Community Outreach in Chicago that we’ve run with our players for years. The guys are excited about that, the leadership development training we put in place last spring, and our combined effort to make honor roll, each and every player.
“On the ice, we want teams to expect a hard-playing, disciplined group of competitors that roll 18 skaters at you and give you a battle every game. We actually developed elements of our brand in spring, (such as), What does it mean to be Deerfield Warriors (player)? And, What do we want people to say about us after a game? All ideas came from the players, and we had 20 strong points that we will fine-tune for fall and beyond.”
Senior defenseman Zach Goldman will be looked at for All-State accolades. Senior Dylan Platt “has so many intangibles (and is) a very smart two-way player,” Schlesinger said. “Our junior (class) is strong. Josh Fein and Matt Brown are great players (who) work hard and helped lead the squad last spring. Sophomore Jack Gerber is a high-scoring forward, and we feel good about junior Seth Miller returning in goal.”
So how far can Deerfield go in 2018-19?
“That’s something I decide in my mind and don’t share … but I set it high,” Schlesinger said, “and it’s not often when a team exceeds my goals.
“I will say, we made a push to move up into the highest level in the North-Central League.”
Schlesinger said his years at New Trier and GBN definitely will pay off for the Warriors.
“I spent some years with Mark Brunner at GBN, and coached a bantam season with Bob Melton at Wilmette. Can you imagine Evan Poulakidas and me coaching a squirt team together? That happened too,” Schlesinger said. “The last few years, (I) also have been around D.J. LaVarre and Tom Gullen at Winnetka, and we share ideas and talk hockey.”
Schlesinger also has coached alongside Rob Malstrom, Mike Noonan and others.
“My guys also played for some big names over their years, including Rich Blakey, Steve Glickman, Bob Murray, Mike Szpylam, Rafe Aybar, Bob Alvarez, Rick Block, Al Pecka, and more,” Schlesinger said. “Corey goaltended for D.J. and Loyola (Gold) at the United Center.
“We will draw on every experience and resource, while still reaching out and connecting with all those coaches as we grow. Hockey seasons grow on top of each other; I can’t begin to predict how previous experience will assist, but it sure is helpful as things (happen and we) have been there before. We all change over time, including hockey players and parents, so, it’s a question of using learned techniques that still work, combined with developing new ones to stay with changes.”
Deerfield has been focused during the off-season, both on and off the ice.
“Seeing our guys’ do hockey running, or medicine ball running, up a hill in summer … you know they want it,” Schlesinger said.
“I’m a big believer in practice tempo and execution, from there we are big communicators up and down our bench on game day. You can’t say it too often, each player is his own unique puzzle. We try to find the best way to connect with each.”
Schlesinger added, “I coach because I had such an incredible time as a player. I owe all my heart for this game to my parents and my coaches. I played for Herb Brooks, Cha Karulak, Dr. Warren Weinberg, Lyle Miller (and) Butch Miller. I want to see Dr. Weinberg’s name in print with those other names. He couldn’t skate, but I learned quite a bit about the game of life from him, through hockey. He could really put things into words.”
Now it’s Schlesinger’s time to talk wins for the Warriors, and deliver.
On The Bench With … Randy Schlesinger
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL player: Reed Larson
Favorite Sport (other than hockey): Football
Favorite Pro Athlete: Thurman Munson
Favorite app: “Appetizer? What?”
Favorite Sports Movie: Victory
Best High School Jersey: “I was always partial to our GBN uniforms. Then I got really comfortable with New Trier. I’ve always liked Fenwick’s look.”
Worst High School Jersey: Highland Park – “you can print that.”
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.