By Ross Forman
But with an asterisk, as it’s just preseason.
Wheaton West is hosting the annual 2018 Illinois Pre-Season Invite, with one of the event’s best-ever field of teams, including New Trier Green, Glenbrook North, Glenbard, Providence and Fenwick.
“This year’s tournament should be a great display of preseason hockey,” said Keith Fahrforth, the Wheaton West Hockey Director/Head Coach. “We have a website dedicated to the tournament and are in our second year of a paperless tournament, which allows people to view our website for roster, schedules/results, and tournament rules. The website is updated after every game, which allows teams to keep a close eye on the tournament without being at the rink. The tournament filled up quicker than any of the previous six years. We have a great group of core teams that have been participating for years and every year we add very strong teams to the field. Our focus for this preseason tournament is to have the strongest field of Illinois high school teams and provide great competition with the main focus on quality hockey.”
Glenbrook North is the defending tournament champion, and the rest of the 2018 field is Neuqua Valley, Notre Dame, Glenbrook South, OPRF, York, BG/H/W, Waubonsie, Highland Park, Maine Township and Edwardsville.
“This year’s tournament features some of the most consistent programs in the state in both the Red and Combined Divisions,” Fahrforth said. “Glenbrook North returns to the tournament to defend their 2017 title, while New Trier Green, Providence, and Glenbrook South are also very strong teams participating. B/G/H/W, Glenbard, and Waubonsie are combined teams looking to have a solid tournament as well.”
Wheaton West also skates in the Combined Division of the Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament, as it is a mix of players from Wheaton Warrenville South, Wheaton North, West Chicago, St Francis and Wheaton Academy high schools.
“Most of the coaches we speak with say they enjoy the tournament because it’s a great time to work out some of the early (season) kinks,” Fahrforth said. “There are many competitive games during the tournament and you never know what to expect. Every year we see some upsets and the last few years the semi-finals and championship games have been great, high-tempo games.
“One of the most important aspects of coaching early in a season is to know what you have, including the team’s identity. The tournament certainly allows coaches to evaluate their entire roster and start to find a chemistry in their lineup.
“A team that loses every game in this tournament will certainly be disappointed. However, coaches and players learn a lot about their team when they lose games. It sounds very cliché, but it is very true. Most teams understand this is a high-level high school tournament and the challenge of playing some of the best can be more appealing than worrying about losing every game.”
Fahrforth, 31, who lives in Batavia, is in his ninth season coaching Wheaton West – and the event has been around for many years before his club became the host. The event was formally hosted by Bartlett.
Wheaton West saw an opportunity to rebrand the event and put a lot more focus on a high-quality hockey tournament, he said. “We also saw there was not a lot of local options for preseason tournaments, and this tournament provides teams the opportunity to play a minimum of three games before they start their regular-season. We felt this was an opportunity to accommodate multiple needs and host a high-end preseason tournament.”
Fahrforth added, “We always like to see close games in the tournament. There are always a few games where the scores get away from teams, but for the most part, we have a lot of success with exciting, close hockey games. We also work closely with IHOA during this tournament. It is a great time to support and give the referees a chance to get back into their groove. Overall, we hope for a clean, competitive tournament.”
In 2017, there were multiple shootouts and an overtime game in the semifinals. “We spoke to a lot of the coaches as the tournament (ended in 2017) and we had a lot of positive feedback. So many teams had a great experience that they reached out to us before we even sent out invitations for the 2018 tournament.”
Wheaton West skates into its tournament with many new faces as the team lost 12 seniors from last year.
“That is always a tough number of players to lose, not only from a talent aspect, but also from a leadership aspect,” Fahrforth said. “Last year was an incredible year for Wheaton West hockey. Both varsity and JV won the Illinois West Cup and the JV team took home the state title for JV Combined. There’s no doubt that’s a tough act to follow. However, judging from our spring season and our returning core, this group is not far away, at all. After a successful season, there is certainly a new local buzz around Wheaton West hockey and the expectations have grown thanks to last year’s teams. This year’s team will compete right away. If you ask the players of their expectations, they would tell you they expect to compete for another league title and find their way to the United Center at the end of the year.
“This year’s team has a good amount of natural talent. The returning core has a lot of experience with high level hockey and they will lead the charge for the new, younger varsity players. (The) coaching staff has a lot of confidence in our leaders. Our goaltending and defense will continue to be a strong part of our program. Another strength for this year’s team will be the positivity in the locker room. We have a great group of players who want to work hard as a team.”
Senior goalie Nathan Rutledge has two years of varsity experience and has been the back-to-back Goalie MVP in the Illinois West All-Star Game and was named to last year’s All-State Team.
Senior defenseman Jacob Baxter is a four-year varsity player, “a versatile defenseman and an important leader for this year’s team,” Fahrforth said.
Senior forward Tim Sloan is returning from an outstanding end of last season. “He is a big body that constantly provides the intangibles for his team to succeed,” Fahrforth said.
Senior forward Tyler Kuta is a two-way player with a knack for goal-scoring. “He has great intensity on the ice and was second on the team in goals last season,” Fahrforth said.
So can Wheaton West skate for state?
“With the talent this team possesses, we expect them to compete with the best teams in the state,” Fahrforth said. “This group wants teams to look at them on the schedule and know they are going to be in for a tough, fast-paced game. Ultimately, our goal is to repeat (as) league championship in Illinois West and to play for the state championship at the United Center. I certainly feel the excitement in the locker room with this group. They know what it’s like to play in big time games and against tough competition and that will help them push to get to our expectations.”
Some of the key Wheaton West newcomers are junior defenseman Nate Londres and senior forward Josh Gilbert.
“Nate is a strong, stay-at-home defenseman. His positioning and puck control are two of his greatest attributes,” Fahrforth said. “Josh is a very talented player who uses his speed to his advantage and has the ability to score on a consistent basis.”
Wheaton West had a solid spring season, with an 8-1-2 record.
“We had a successful spring season (and) our practices were focused, yet fun,” Fahrforth said. “We like to give our players the month of July off to recuperate and just be teenagers. Hockey is such an intense sport and demands a lot of time; we feel it’s important for all players to remember to have fun off the ice as well.”
On The Bench With … Coach Keith Fahrforth
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Phil Kessel
Favorite Sport (other than hockey): Golf
Favorite Pro Athlete: Rickie Fowler
Favorite app: Twitter
Favorite Sports Movie: Youngblood
Best High School Jersey (other than Wheaton West): St. Viator
Worst High School Jersey: Oswego
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.