Local coaches pay tributes to the Class of 2020
By Ross Forman – Memories from the 2019-20 Illinois High School Hockey Season will last forever, even though the final weeks of the season came to an abrupt end when the world was, to put it mildly, turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Especially for seniors – on and off the ice. No state champions. No post-season banquets to honor the graduates. No prom. No spring sports, such as baseball or lacrosse – two that traditionally have been the post-hockey season sport-of-choice for many. No true goodbyes. No senior breakfast, or other school tradition. And, of course, no formal graduation.
But the Illinois Hockey Community has not forgotten the Senior Class of 2020.
“One of the lessons the game of hockey and sports in general teaches us is to control what you can control,” and the pandemic impact was out of your control, said Saint Viator head coach Tim Benz. “In this circumstance, you can control how you spend time with family and friends. Make the most of it while you can, and when we return to normalcy, ensure that you have some stories or moments to talk about.”
Jason Hawkins, head coach for co-op Glenbard, added: “I hope the seniors can look back at their entire high school career and remember all the great memories and friends they made.”
Glenbard, with the No. 4 seed, would have faced No. 1 Maine Township in a Combined Division state semi-final. Glenbard had already scored state tournament wins over Libertyville and Wheaton West.
“Not many players get to end their high school career with a win, (but) our seniors did,” Hawkins said. “At the time, we didn’t know that would be our last game, but an overtime shorthanded goal (against Wheaton West) was sure an exciting final moment of the season.”
As the saying goes, “Play every game like it’s your last,” Hawkins added.
How true, particularly this past season.
“The seniors … they all should be proud of what they accomplished,” Hawkins said. “Thank you, seniors, for providing so many great memories that your coaches, parents, fans, and teammates will never forget.”
Hockey, it often is said, is the perfect training ground for the real world. And this spring has been one of the most challenging ever.
Phil Gabrielsen, the Varsity Black Head Coach/Director of Hockey for the co-op Fox Valley Hawks, had a simple word for the state’s seniors: “You will do great, keep positive and motivated to achieve great things.”
Fox Valley had been eliminated by Leyden, 3-0, in the state tournament.
“I spoke to the seniors at our last game; I thanked them for the season and for their commitment to the (program), whether it was for 1-year or all 4-years. They all had a big part in the current success of the Fox Valley Hawks program,” Gabrielsen said. “We had a group of seniors that spent all 4 years together and it was great to see them have fun this season and achieve success on and off the ice.”
For all the seniors across Illinois ice, Gabrielsen said, “Use the lessons you learned as a hockey player as you continue to pursue your dreams.”
Evan Poulakidas, head coach for the No. 2-ranked Glenbrook North Spartans, sent a group text to all his players after the season was abruptly ended. He followed that with an individual text to his seniors.
The tears were nonstop from Poulakidas, whose Spartans were set for a semifinal battle with their arch-rival, Glenbrook South – and the winner then would skate at the United Center against either No. 1-ranked New Trier Green or No. 4 Barrington for the Red Division title.
“Spartans,” Poulakidas wrote in his team text. “I am sorry we cannot finish our journey together. You have played magnificently and have earned a place with the other great teams in GBN hockey history. Remember this year with great fondness. You were a close team that enjoyed each other greatly. I will think of this team often, you left soooo many great memories. The coaching staff thanks each and every one of you for your contribution, dedication and commitment. You will be Spartans forever. With Great Respect, Coach Evan.”
Poulakidas said the 2020 seniors of Illinois hockey “elevated high school hockey to another level.”
Poulakidas added: “Take the lessons learned on the ice to your life: commitment, discipline, team-work, and failure with the will to try again. Those lessons are vital to success. There are no short cuts; choose not to be ordinary.”
Poulakidas also had a final note for the Illinois hockey seniors who certainly had a tear-filled final two months of their high school lives. Poulakidas repeated the famed words of the late Robert Schuller: “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”
Tom Wood, the head coach at Stevenson, offered advice for the senior class: “Take a negative and turn it into a positive.”
Wood added, “Invest in (the) relationship with your family. Work on the things you never had time to work on. Help others in need. As we move forward to a new normal life remember to appreciate what you have and don’t squander the time you have.”
No. 7-ranked Stevenson was eliminated from the state tournament by Loyola Gold.
“For the senior hockey players, I am sorry some of you didn’t get to finish your season,” Wood said. “Our first responsibility as adults is to keep kids safe. What we saw in other countries led us to realize that we did not have the necessary equipment to deal with a massive outbreak of coronavirus in this country. Sometimes you need to sacrifice your own interests for the betterment of others. This is a once in a lifetime event.”
Wood thanked each Patriot senior after the team’s season-ending loss – for giving everything they had. “They accomplished a lot of amazing things,” he said.
The Patriots, like other teams across the state, had to settle for an end-of-the-season Zoom party. That’s when Wood told his seniors how proud he was of their hard-work and the fact that they never gave up.
Wood also told the seniors that he was sorry that they were going through this difficult time, but that they should use it productively. “I tell all my players that (life) goes by quickly and to put everything you have into accomplishing your personal, hockey, team, and life goals,” Wood said.
Stevenson’s seniors accomplished something during the regular-season that no other Illinois high school team did: the Patriots defeated No. 1-ranked New Trier Green.
No one at Stevenson has, or probably ever will, forget that come-from-behind victory over the Trevians.
“All of our players were sacrificing for each other and really played well and battled back,” Wood said. “The victory over New Trier Green definitely stood out as a big memory for this group. Our seniors played a huge role in that game and they proved they could beat anyone in the state on any night.”
Wood, who graduated from Stevenson and now coaches alongside his younger brother, Dan, said seniors in Illinois must live in the present and not squander anything because life goes by quickly. “Every day is a gift. Spend time with the people you love and do the things you love,” he said. “Seniors, you went through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I know it seems rough right now, but life goes on. This too shall pass.”
Leyden has developed into a Combined Division power in recent years, anchored by seven seniors. The Eagles captured the regular-season title in the Gold Varsity League of the North-Central Division with a 15-5-4 record. Their season, though, was ended by the state tournament’s No. 1-seed, Maine Township.
“Having the (pandemic) cause the (cancellation) of the rest of the state playoffs was hard for so many players, not just those in the final four. Hockey across the state was important to so many and they all would have loved to see the playoffs through to the end,” said Leyden head coach Pat Terretta. “I would tell my team and all of the high school seniors in Illinois to never quit, never give up, and you can accomplish anything.
“I could not be prouder of the (Leyden) seniors from this season and how they handled themselves. They looked out for each other and focused on their education above anything. We had a great locker room where the boys could talk about anything. They supported each other throughout the year and that is so important in the locker room. I would tell them to keep that loyalty and friendship and always support their teammates, no matter their differences. Each one of them contributed something valuable to the team and to our success.
“It was truly an honor and a pleasure to teach them the great game of hockey.”
No. 2 Loyola Academy was set to face No. 6 Upper Fox Valley on March 17 in a girls’ state tournament semifinal game. The game, of course, was cancelled.
“This senior class of 2020 here in Illinois and around the nation should be celebrated and remembered not for what wasn’t, but for what was and for what will be. They should be celebrated for everything they have accomplished thus far and celebrated for the great things to come,” said Loyola girls head coach Robert Messner. “This is not how they envisioned their seasons, or their senior year, (would come) to a close, but this is just a small part of their lives that are just beginning.
“Most of (the Ramblers and others) have played their final competitive hockey game and that is alright because they are going to do great things in the world, things much bigger than anything that can be done (at) an ice rink.”
Messner added, “For those who are lucky enough to play at the next level, that should not be taken lightly. Continue to play with the desire and passion that (you) have since (you) were young. And maybe play for your (high school) teammates who are no longer fortunate enough to (still) play the game.”
Loyola had a 10-2-2 record in Metro Girls this season, with key points during the season from seniors Jenna Rekoske and Jayna Park, among others. The Ramblers were 5-2-3, the top team in the 7-team Scholastic Cup playoffs.
Seniors across the state, Messner said, need to know that, “everyone is extremely proud of them, and the young men and women they have become. They are the future and they are all prepared for anything that may come their way.”
The pandemic also has impacted high school seniors who skated locally in black and white – as referees. Some officiated playoff games this season, yet none were able to attend district and national camps to further their development.
“It has been a big disappointment, a weird way to end the season, and I feel bad for the students, especially the seniors. They never will know how many opportunities that have been lost. It also (has been) a tough time (for seniors) to be a referee in Illinois,” said Dave Zednik of the Illinois Hockey Officials Association (IHOA).
Jim Swoyer, head coach at Hinsdale Central, told seniors to make the best of the situation, even if that meant a graduation with simply a drive-by wave and pictures in front of their homes.
“This is not what any of us imagined (for graduation), but dealing with adversity is part of life and making the best of what you have is a huge accomplishment,” Swoyer said.
Hinsdale Central is planning a senior dinner in August.
“We look forward to recognizing our players and connecting with them one last time before they go off to pursue their next adventure,” Swoyer said.
“To all the seniors (in the state), I am so disheartened that your high school hockey career ended the way it did, especially those (teams that) advanced to the (semifinals). This will forever be known as the season that never ended.”
But the memories will last a lifetime.
Such as the time a Hinsdale Central senior goalie put his bulky pads and blocker aside to skate as a forward in the team’s senior night. With seconds left to play, a pass was made about 18 inches off the ice, yet Rhett Bergevin snapped the puck out of the air and into the net to score his first and only goal of his high school career. “It was not the (game)-winning goal, but the all the boys on the team were so excited for him; they had a bench-clearing celebration,” Swoyer said. “It was one of the most incredible goals I have seen by a great kid who had only one chance to do it.”
Swoyer added: “COVID has taught us a lot over the last few months. Life is precious and there are times we need to sacrifice for the betterment of the masses. We have seen families come together through all of this and re-engaged with parents and siblings. In life, we need to keep things in perspective that, even though wining a state championship is (at) the top of all athlete’s priority list, there are other things more important.”
To read the Senior Speech from 4-year varsity player Anthony Arnoni, click here. Want to share a Senior picture from your hockey team? Email photo to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will share on our Facebook and Instagram pages.
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.