By Ross Forman
He’s a four-year varsity forward for Saint Ignatius who has tallied 19 goals, including 4 game-winners, in his first 14 Chicago Catholic Hockey League games this season, along with 6 assists. Pat Doyle is tied for the league-lead in points and leads in goals.
Doyle is just one of the reasons for optimism this winter for the Wolfpack, which leads the Catholic League and is one the state’s elite teams. They outscored league foes 73-36 in their first 15 games, and are leading St. Rita, Saint Viator and Providence Catholic.
Doyle, an assistant captain, “is a dynamic play-maker,” said Saint Ignatius head coach Matt Smith. Doyle was the Most Outstanding Player in the Catholic League last season … and skating the same path this season.
It should surprise no one if Doyle and his Wolfpack skate this March at the United Center for the school’s first-ever state championship.
“This is an important year for us,” said Smith, in his third season as the Saint Ignatius head coach. “I think there is a sense of urgency and purpose to our group. We have 13 seniors, seven of which are now in their third year at varsity. Last season, we lost on our home ice to Saint Viator in Game 3 of the Kennedy Cup Finals and Loyola (Gold) knocked us out of the state tournament. The wounds are fresh. The time is now for this group to do something special and leave their legacy.”
Saint Ignatius is loaded with experience, depth and team culture. “We have balance across the lineup and our guys understand our elevated standards and expectations,” Smith said.
That said, the Wolfpack has yet to win a big tournament. “(We) need to find that next level and elevate our game against high-level competition when it matters most,” Smith said. “(We) also need more contributions from our depth and role-players in big games.”
Smith, 45, a Chicago resident and the athletic director for Acero Schools, has 15-plus years of coaching experience, four in the high school ranks.
“My first experience coaching was as a camp counselor (during my) summers of high school and later as a minor instructor with CanAm Hockey summer camps, including Stars Hockey Camp in Guelph, Ontario (during my) summers of college,” Smith said.
He has extensive, successful coaching experience locally: he coached for the Chicago Blues (charter partnership with Saddle Hockey Club; winning one NIHL championship); Chicago Jets (where he served as both hockey director from 2007-12 and coach for several squirt and pee wee teams, including winning two NIHL President’s Cups); and the Chicago Stallions (2015-16 skills coach/player development and coached a pee wee team).
In addition, he spent one year as the JV coach at Evanston High School.
Smith was named the league’s Coach of the Year in each of his first two seasons with the Wolfpack.
Plus, Smith was a central regional scout for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP) for one season (2014-15), including attending the national team evaluation camp and USA Hockey Select U-15 festival.
“We have created a very competitive schedule, (including playing in) three more tournaments than we have in the past, on top of (participating in the annual) Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament and the Jesuit Cup that we co-host with Loyola over MLK weekend (in mid-January),” Smith said. “Additionally, we made some changes in our approach and systems, including better use of video, to try and take advantage of working with a more advanced group. We are not content with where we are as a program. We know we have to keep pushing the pace and elevating our standards.”
This season has included a day trip to Milwaukee in November to participate in a set of exhibition scrimmages, hosted by the University School of Milwaukee. “It was good for our group to be together in that way and to compete against higher level competition. (It was) a productive, enjoyable experience all around,” Smith said.
Smith grew up playing mainly for the McFetridge Patriots with a couple of seasons skating for the Skokie Flyers and Deerfield Falcons. He played for Lane Tech High School, then at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc. where he was a four-year player and team captain as a senior.
“(My playing career) taught me how to compete; gave me a respect and passion for the game, including developing valuable life-long friendships. It also gave me an appreciation and understanding of the demands of being a student-athlete,” Smith said.
Senior All-State goalie Charles Doherty is another reason for the Saint Ignatius success this season, along with a rock solid senior defensive core/leadership group – Sam Madura (co-captain), Dom Fischer (co-captain) and Chris McFarland (assistant captain).
Two key newcomers this season are junior center Max Pasiennik and sophomore center Will Gerami, both of whom played AAA last season. “(They are) very responsible and coachable players who have made an immediate impact,” Smith said.
“It’s been a positive start to the season. We went right in to the lion’s den early on, (including defending state champion) Loyola Gold in game one and New Trier Green in game three, (challenging games) which I think helped us with our strong start in the Catholic League,” Smith said. “We have played well and consistently in the Catholic League, although Providence has had our number in two very competitive games.
“The 1-0 win against GBN in an October practice game gave us some confidence. They humbled us in the Loyola Thanksgiving Tournament, however, and both reminded us of some of our shortcomings and left us hungry for more.”
Smith added, “I think we have been relatively consistent thus far. New players and underclassmen have integrated well and are gaining confidence and experience.”
Forward Dominic Bertucci has 15 points in 15 league games, followed by Max Pasiennik, Will Germai and John Nelson.
“Max Pasiennik has the ingredients to be a difference-maker,” Smith said. “He is a high character, highly competitive guy who has the ability to influence the game.”
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Smith said. “The fundamentals are there to take this thing to the next level. It comes down to our senior group and how badly they want it for each other. We have to stay focused on the micro picture – continual forward progress daily in our habits and approach. (We) can’t get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Thus, the state championship is not their first priority. “We have unresolved business within the Catholic League,” Smith said. “I believe we are in the hunt for state, but are under no false illusions. There is a big hill yet to climb. New Trier and Loyola don’t just go away on their own.”
Smith added, “We have a great coaching staff that really complements one another and cares about the sustained success of this program. The program has come a long way in a short amount of time. We are proud of the boys and how they have elevated the standards of what it means to play for Saint Ignatius. Also, we are very fortunate to call MB Ice Arena home and are thankful for our partnership with the Blackhawks. The facilities and professionalism are unmatched. We are excited for the future of Saint Ignatius Hockey and the next wave on the horizon.”
*Photos courtesy of Bruce Fischer
On The Bench With … Saint Ignatius Head Coach Matt Smith
Favorite NHL Team: Chicago Blackhawks
Favorite NHL Player: Jonathan Toews
The 2019 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: Tampa Bay
Hardest Slapshot on Ignatius: Sam Madura
Most Accurate Shot On Ignatius: Pat Doyle
Fastest Skater on Ignatius: Will Gerami
Player Who You Could See As a Coach One Day: Pat Doyle
Best Coaching Advice You Ever Received, And Who Was it From: “There are two non-negotiables: character and compete … I am not sure who said it, but it really resonates.”
Hockey Pet Peeve: Undisciplined penalties
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.