By Ross Forman
Nick Fabbrini, who skated on, arguably, one of the best forward lines in Illinois high school hockey history, has been named an assistant coach for the 2019 U.S. Men’s National University Team which will compete at the 2019 Winter World University Games, set for March 2-12 in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.
Eric Ballard also will be an assistant coach, with Roger Grillo serving as the head coach.
“It’s very exciting and very humbling to be selected to represent USA Hockey in international competition for the second time,” said Fabbrini, now in his seventh season as head coach for the men’s hockey team at the University of Illinois, which included an appearance in the 2018 ACHA national championship game.
Fabbrini is a two-time finalist for the ACHA Coach of the Year Award (2013, 2018) and winner of the 2018 Central States Collegiate Hockey League Coach of the Year Award. He also won two national championships as a player with the Illini in 2005 and 2008.
“The World University Games are essentially a Winter Olympics for college students, so it’s a pretty unbelievable experience,” said Fabbrini, 32, who lives in Savoy, Ill., and is in his 11th year coaching, split between youth, high school, and the college game. “To be able to work with head coach Roger Grillo, a former NCAA Division I coach and one of the architects of the ADM is really exciting as well.
“We want to come home with a medal. No American men’s team has ever won a medal at this event, so we are planning to be the first. Canada sends former major junior players and most European countries send professional players who are in school part-time, so it won’t be easy … but we are excited and think we’ll have a pretty talented (team).”
Fabbrini added, “It’s an honor to represent your country on the international stage. Last trip to Kazakhstan was my first time participating in an international tournament, and I’m sure I was a bit wide-eyed at the beginning. But hockey is hockey, and USA Hockey does a great job of giving us everything we need to be successful at the tournament.”
The U.S. Men’s National University Team is comprised of players who compete collegiately in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, and the men’s team has competed in the bi-annual tournament since 2001.
“I think Fenwick (High School) in general and playing hockey there and at Illinois both helped prepare me for this (international opportunity). Fenwick gave me the structure and environment that almost demanded success and I was able to learn from great coaches who gave me the confidence to grow as a player,” Fabbrini said. “I was lucky to play for a couple of great coaches at Fenwick, Dave Cromer and Mike Breslin. Both those guys taught me so much about the game, and Cromer even gave me an opportunity to come back and help out a little bit in 2005 when I was playing at Illinois.”
Fabbrini didn’t just play at Fenwick – he shined, as did the Friars in his day. Fabbrini skated on a line with John Glancy and Mike Janda – and many longtime Illinois high school hockey coaches will agree that this trio was one of the best-ever.
“I’ll never forget winning back-to-back Catholic League, Kennedy Cup, and state championships at Fenwick. Some of those guys are still great friends of mine to this day, and between those special moments and playing in front of great crowds at Ridgeland Commons (in Oak Park), playing for Fenwick was one of the best choices I’ve made in my hockey career,” Fabbrini said.
Janda is now living in San Jose, Calif., with his wife and family, and is coaching at the midget level for the San Jose Jr. Sharks AAA. Glancy is living and working in Chicago.
Fabbrini also was playing in Chicago over the summer – in an adult league at Johnny’s Icehouse. He just signed up to skate in a senior rec league in Champaign.
But coaching is his main slapshot these days.
“Once I started coaching and understood how much I enjoyed helping shape a team’s identity, I looked forward to not only coaching my own team, but running my own program the way I feel it should be run,” he said.
Fabbrini is the head coach of Illini Hockey, plus the director of coaching and bantam head coach for Champaign-Urbana Youth Hockey Association. He also tutors for the Champaign School District.
“During my time as an (Illini) assistant coach during the 2008-09 season, we advanced to the national championship with a chance to win back-to-back championships, but came up a little short against Lindenwood,” Fabbrini said. “Then, after graduation I spent one year coaching squirt AA and midget AA at the Chicago Hawks with Nikos Tselios. After that I came back to Fenwick, where I coached at both the JV and varsity levels for two seasons. Then, I was fortunate enough to get hired back here, and we won the CSCHL championship in my first season.”
Last season, the Illini went 26-12-2, good for third-place in the CSCHL.
“Last year was a special season for a lot of reasons,” Fabbrini said. “First, we had a tremendous senior class and group of guys overall. I’ve always said that, to be successful in the ACHA, you need to have a dedicated group of seniors, and we (had) that last year. We went through adversity in terms of injuries, and frankly not playing to our potential (during the) first semester, but (in the) second semester, everyone got on the same page, we got healthy and started rolling. We (had) contributions from everyone in the lineup, which is a key to success at every level of hockey, and the level of sacrifice was truly impressive. We advanced to the CSCHL Championship Game and the national championship game, and were the only team in the final four of each tournament that doesn’t receive any funding or special academic considerations from our school.”
There’s plenty of excitement in Champaign this season, too, despite graduating eight that were an integral part of last season’s success.
The freshman class of five should contribute immediately – and they bring strong local ties. Just consider:
- Kacper Ryba, wing, played CYA last year, led HPHL in scoring;
- Jack Healy, center, played Peoria Mustangs NA3HL last year, was third in scoring;
- Paul Prikos, defenseman from CYA;
- Vince Avino, defenseman from St. Viator;
- Jackson Leptich, forward from Stevenson.
“I’m really excited about this season, (though) we’re playing arguably the toughest schedule in the country, which is the way we like it. I can’t wait to get started,” Fabbrini said.
The Illini return 12 forwards and five defensemen.
“The way our season ended last year has made this group hungry to get back to work,” Fabbrini said. “We graduated four (of the) top-nine forwards and two of our top-four defensemen, but depth was a major strength for us last season and that will pay off this year.
“We have an experienced (defense), with three seniors, a junior, and the returning CSCHL Rookie of the Year, Joe Nolan. Our forward group will be deep and dangerous again, and I really think we’ll be able to push the pace and play the way we want to this year.
“Having so many returning D who have played big minutes in big situations, and been successful in doing so (is a big strength). Our forward group is made up of guys who compete and can impact the game in so many different ways, and they understand the way we want them to play. The buy-in from this group has already been tremendous.”
So who’s who on the Illini this season? Let’s look:
- Junior center Bobby Ernsting was a First-Team All-Tournament at Nationals, wore an ‘A’ last year, plays in all situations and is a difference-maker, Fabbrini said.
- Sophomore wing Drew Richter was named to the CSCHL All-Rookie Team last year, and carries elite speed and blazing shot.
- Sophomore wing Thomas Kolaz played a huge role down the stretch and at Nationals, Fabbrini said.
- Junior wing Luke Forfar “is an extension of the coaching staff on the ice, and wants to be on the ice when it matters,” Fabbrini said.
- Senior defenseman Tyler Opilka is a team leader.
- Sophomore defenseman Joe Nolan was on the CSCHL and ACHA All-Rookie Team.
- Junior goalie Jake Barnhart went 9-1-0 last season, including two road wins against Ohio University.
“There’s no reason we can’t accomplish everything we set out to do this year,” Fabbrini said. “We’ll need everyone on the same page, but the energy at the rink every day is tangible and guys are excited to be back.
“We want to win the CSCHL Regular-Season Championship, the CSCHL Tournament Championship, and ACHA National Championship. Those are the goals we have every year.
“I think we have all the talent we need, and the energy and enthusiasm so far has been great to see. Staying healthy will be big for us, as we haven’t necessarily been able to do that in recent years, but with a new strength and conditioning program, we think we’ll be better in that area this year.”
Illinois’ breakout player this season could be junior forward Stephen Quinn, who had “an unbelievable” CSCHL and National Tournament last year, Fabbrini said. Or maybe it’ll be junior forward Jon Moskaluk, who was a difference-maker the entire second half last season. Or, junior center could be that-guy, as he was “a big part of our success last year, and came back to school in great shape,” Fabbrini said.
Fabbrini’s roster is filled, not surprisingly, with former Illinois high school hockey players.
“Some of the best (Illinois) high school players from the last 15 years have been some of our best players down here (at the University of Illinois),” Fabbrini said. “With so many places for midget-aged players to play, it’s nice to be able to count on the Chicago area to continue to pump out good hockey players.”
Fabbrini added, “I would recommend that all players from the Chicago area get to see an ACHA D1 game sometime this season, whether at The Edge for Robert Morris or down in Champaign to see us. The top 10 (to) 15 teams in the ACHA are as good as a lot of NCAA D3 (teams). I think the talent level of a few individual players and the level of play overall will surprise you.”
On The Bench With … Illinois Head Coach Nick Fabbrini
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL player: Nikita Kucherov
Favorite Sport (other than hockey): Soccer or baseball
Favorite Pro Athlete: Michael Jordan
Favorite app: GroupMe or Twitter
Favorite Sports Movie: “Depends on my mood, Slap Shot or Miracle.”
Best High School Jerseys (other than Fenwick): “Good question … I don’t get to see too many high school games during the season. My Fenwick heritage prevents me from giving you a Catholic League school or OPRF, though I can respect the Orange/Navy combo.”
Worst High School Jerseys: “Any jersey that has crossed hockey sticks. Those don’t belong on a hockey jersey. Ever.”
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.