By Ross Forman
Four games into the season, the BG/H/W Stampede is a .500 team – with one-goal wins over archrival Maine Township and Edwardsville, and one-goal losses to perennial powers Glenbrook North and Providence Catholic.
Well, despite 10 new players on the team, including seven underclassmen, BG/H/W looks positioned for a return run late into the Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament, anchored on their history.
Let’s drop back just one year ago.
“We were a .500 team through November and ended up the season 31 games over .500,” Chris Waters, BG/H/W hockey director and head coach, said of the 2017-18 team. “We lost to teams like New Trier White, Glenbrook North, Latin Academy of Chicago, and Loyola (Maroon) at the beginning of the year and when we played those teams later season, we won.
“We (had) some great individual talents, (such as) Connor Kelly, Gavin Spahr, and Eric Kurpiewski, but the improvement was due to our team play and commitment to (the) same goals. The season was also special because it was Bob Wagner’s last season with BGHW. He helped bring BG/H/W to the level it is at today. Being able to win his last game in the state championship at the United Center the way we did was really cool.”
BG/H/W cruised past Waubonsie Valley, 7-2, this past March to claim the Combined Division State Championship, the team’s second title.
“Last season was one of the most enjoyable seasons I have had in my coaching career,” said Waters, 36, who lives in Libertyville and is in his 11th year coaching, his ninth coaching high school hockey and his fourth at BG/H/W – a mix of players from Buffalo Grove, Hersey and Wheeling.
“The players really clicked as teammates and absorbed the coaching from the staff. I am extremely proud of the improvements we made as the season progressed.
“The first (BG/H/W) state championship was won in overtime and always will be special because it was the first. However, I was so nervous and anxious leading up to the game and during the game, I really didn’t enjoy the experience. This time, (in 2018), I really tried to take everything in. AHAI and the (Chicago) Blackhawks do such an amazing job setting up the day for the teams, and to share that with the players, their parents, and my friends and family was an experience I will never forget. Our success has had huge ripple effects: more players are interested in (the) team, the better teams in state want to play us, we get invited to the best tournaments, etc. These are things that lead to long-term success.”
BG/H/W lost 4-3 to Stevenson and 2-1 in an overtime shootout this season.
But optimism is still sky-high.
“I went into this season thinking this would be more of a rebuilding year, but, the players definitely raised the bar (during the pre-season). I can’t wait to see where we end up in February and March after several months of practice and game experience. We play some of the best high school teams in the country in exhibition games and tournament games, so our record might not be what it has been the past three years. My goal is to keep improving as a team and give our players the best shot at winning the state championship not only this year, but for the foreseeable future.”
The Stampede is anchored this season on team speed. Their forwards may not be the biggest in the state, but they are fast, with decent hands, Waters said.
The team lost five of six defensemen from last year’s team. “This might be a weakness for the first few months, but considering only one of them is a senior, it will be a strength in the years to come,” Waters said. “All six of the defensemen are talented, but need to get used to the speed at varsity. Once they do, they will be as a good as any group in (the) state.”
The Stampede has four key returners, starting with junior goalie Evan Wurzbacher (Hersey), who Waters said, “has already come up huge in two games this season. If he keeps playing the way he has been, he could be in consideration for All-State recognition.”
Two key senior forwards from Hersey are Eric Kurpiewski and Brendan Buckley, both of whom will be heavily relied upon this year. “Eric was All-State last year and has elite speed and hands. Brendan is a tough kid, hard to knock of the puck, and a knack for making big plays in big games, (such as) a hat trick in the state championship last year,” Waters said.
Senior Ryan Offman (Wheeling) is the team’s lone returning defenseman. “He is playing with a new sense of confidence and will be relied upon to be a leader for our young defensemen,” Waters said.
“I went into this year looking at a rebuilding year and trying to temper expectations. However, after seeing us compete in four games and how much we have improved in previous years from start to finish, I now believe we should be competing for our conference and (the) state championship. We have the talent to get there; we’ll see how fast our new players catch on to the speed of the game and our team systems.”
Two newcomers of note are freshman Dominic Wachal (Hersey) and sophomore Kellen Christopher (Hersey), talented forwards that have already scored goals at the varsity level. “They might be underclassmen, but they are physical, fast, talented, and understand the game of hockey,” Waters said.
Waters started coaching years ago for the Falcons at the peewee level. He also coached the Warren High School JV for one year before joining Deerfield High School as the varsity coach and hockey director. “We had a good run at Deerfield, winning a regular-season conference title, a White Division State Championship, and a couple different tournament titles. In 2014, Bob Wagner called and I jumped at the opportunity to join BG/H/W. During my time at BG/H/W we have won two regular-season conference titles, two post-season conference titles, (had) one final-four finish in state and two state championships.
“I strongly believe in giving the players (the months of) June and July off. Hockey is a long season; the players and coaches need time to get away from the game and come back rejuvenated in August/September. We had a few skates in August, but are really just getting started.
“The goal is to compete in every game and get better so we are peaking in February and March. I think the ceiling for this team is extremely high and I hope we are playing at the UC again in March.”
Waters said the North-Central Division is, always, filled with talented teams that can compete against any team from any conference.
New Trier White is always a force, and others to watch include PREP, D155, and Leyden.
On The Bench With … BG/H/W Head Coach Chris Waters
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Players: Chris Chelios (former), Duncan Keith (current)
Favorite Sport (other than hockey): Lacrosse
Favorite Pro Athlete: Roger Federer
Favorite app: Google Calendar
Favorite Sports Movie: Youngblood
Best High School Jerseys (other than BG): Glenbrook North
Worst High School Jerseys: PREP
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.