Former coach, Illinois Suburban Hockey League founder leaves near 40-year local legacy
He started coaching locally in 1983 at the Elmhurst YMCA and was associated with the ISHL since its formation in the late-1990s. In fact, the league is now called the Hayes-Suburban Division within the Illinois High School Hockey League.
“George Hayes always had the best interests of the Illinois high school players first and foremost. Every decision he ever made had that premise in mind,” said Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey. “He truly was a first-class individual (who) will be deeply missed. We extend our sincere sympathies to his family.”
Former AHAI president Mike Mullally added: “George taught me so much about being ‘A good and fair hockey guy.’ He was an original in Illinois, heading up the Illinois Suburban Hockey League for years. He assisted players in their growing and learning years, many of whom never even (knew) what George had done for them.”
David Steinberger, a former JV and varsity coach for the Spartans Hockey Club, labeled Hayes as “an administrator’s version of a rink rat.”
“Every time I went to the rink he would be there. He loved the game and wanted the best for every player, coach and team,” Steinberger said. “George worked hard to make the Illinois Suburban Hockey League successful. If one of his schools had issues with numbers he would work with them to continue the program. I was glad to see that the league was named after George prior to his death so he (was) aware.
“When teams were thinking of moving away from the league, he would look to replace them with other teams that would be competitive in the league.”
Steinberger said he was “honored” that Hayes once presented him with a JV Coach Award at the league’s All-Star Game.
Hayes coached Willowbrook High School for eight years, and his coaching career from 1983-96 included everything from mites to high school varsity.
He coached all three of his sons – Peter, now 46; David, 44; and Karl, 41 – plus a foreign exchange student in the early-1990s who lived at the family’s home.
AWFM ran away with the league’s regular-season title this year, finishing with a 23-1 record. MidValley was second in the nine-team varsity division, followed by Marist and the Cobras.
Marist won the 18-team Hayes-Suburban JV regular-season title with a 22-2-0-2 record, followed by Crown Point and Oswego.
“He did whatever he could to give every player an opportunity to play. He gave people a place to play; that’s what my dad did for high school hockey,” said Karl Hayes.
George was the first league president to allow co-op teams. In fact, he actually put together the original rules for combined teams.
“He just wanted to grow the sport; he wanted everyone to be able to play, and he wanted everyone to have fun,” Karl said.
Hayes stared the West Suburban JV Hockey League which, after a few seasons, become the Illinois Suburban Hockey League. He retired from the league about eight years ago.
When asked what the Illinois Suburban Hockey League meant to his dad, Karl didn’t hesitate: “It meant everything to him.”
Ironically, George never played organized hockey. He only played on the ponds at Marquette Park on Chicago’s south side.
Baseball and basketball were his sports-of-choice as a youngster, with baseball being his favorite, though he played basketball at Harper High School in Chicago.
Hayes loved all sports, particularly the Chicago White Sox. He attended his first and only Chicago Bears game at Soldier Field this past fall with some family members.
Away from the ice, Hayes’ passion was racing dirt track stock cars. He also years ago was a band member and long has been a supporter of the Collie Rescue of Greater Illinois, Inc. “He loved animals,” Karl said.
George also years ago was an avid bowler, and once scored a perfect 300 game.
But the local rinks were, truly, his home. And there was no better night to spotlight the sport than during the annual ISHL All-Star Games, which truly were his pride and joy.
Heck, he often had a wedding DJ playing at the All-Star games. He incorporated memorable fan engagement elements between periods; and hey, he himself did a lot of the announcing.
“He did it up, and the All-Star games were the place to be,” Karl said. “He was so proud at the league All-Star Games. He lived for that moment of the season. He loved the ISHL All-Star Games.
“Seeing his smile at the All-Star games … that was my fondest memory of him with hockey.”
Phil Gabrielsen, who now coaches the Fox Valley Hawks, was friends with Hayes for more than 30 years after they met at the Elmhurst YMCA ice rink. Gabrielsen was working there and coaching Hayes’ sons.
“George had a big impact on Illinois High School hockey,” Gabrielsen said. “He was always willing to help anyone in his league and even clubs outside his league. No matter where I was coaching he was only a phone call away for help.
“He did it all for the right reasons … he did it for the kids, (and) he never took any money for anything he did.”
Former Hayes-Suburban Division president Ron Abels added: “George always had a love of the JV player and groomed the JV level of his program to encourage growth of the player by placing JV teams in the correct competitive division.”
Gabrielsen noted that Hayes long cared as much about the league’s last-place team as the ISHL champion.
Gabrielsen also had Dave and Karl Hayes coach with him.
“They both worked as hard at the game as George did, spending countless hours to make themselves better coaches,” Gabrielsen said. “I am sure he was proud of the coaches they became.”
Rob Ince, current president of the Hayes-Suburban Division, never met Hayes – but truly hopes the namesake would be proud of the direction that the league is heading.
“Not only will the name George Hayes forever be part of this division’s name and top JV trophy, (but) his spirit and drive for high school hockey will remain a part of the vision (in the) Hayes-Suburban Division to always put the player first and offer a competitive balance for the clubs to develop, grow and enjoy the game they love,” Ince said.
Mark Bandzi, head coach at Marist, met Hayes about 25 years ago during JV games played at the then-new Orland Park Ice Arena.
“His first priority back then was to create a league that offered parity to all teams involved,” Bandzi said. “He wanted as many kids, no matter what their ability or background in hockey, to have a place to play where they would have evenly-matched competition.”
Bandzi noted that Hayes had a seeding round, a regular-season, and then playoffs.
He would have as many divisions as needed to ensure competitive playoffs and finals, Bandzi said.
“His vision created opportunities for many players to be able to play in a championship that they never would have in other leagues … (and) all championship games were close,” Bandzi said. “What I admired most about George was every decision he made on how the league ran, (from) all-star games to playoffs and championship games, was always based on the best experiences for the player. George was one of those rare individuals who always put the player first, never looking for credit or notoriety for himself.”
Bandzi said Hayes liked to be challenged and wanted fresh ideas to always improve the league.
“It was about ‘our league,’ not ‘his league,’” Bandzi said.
Karl Hayes said his dad’s 2010 induction into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame (Builder’s Category) “meant a lot to him.”
Bandzi added: “George’s induction into the Hall of Fame was greatly deserved. His visions of how to make the game that we all love better and more inclusive have opened the doors to many new teams and put more players on the ice.”
Bandzi, who lives in Alsip, has coached high school hockey for 25 years, including about 15 years at the JV level in the Illinois Suburban Hockey League – for Stagg, Mt. Carmel, Cobras and Providence.
“George was a great mentor (who helped) me find my way through high school hockey as a coach,” Bandzi said. “He had a very good grasp on how to keep things simple, yet always right. I only wish I had taken the time to let him know how important he was in my own development.
We have lost a truly great pioneer in our sport and personally I have lost a mentor and someone who I will always be proud to call a friend.”
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.