By Ross Forman – The Chris Mulligan Hockey Story started in fourth grade, late for most players. He was an Ice Dogs house league player for a few years, then, in seventh grade, finally tried out for a travel team – and he was confident heading into the tryouts.
But he didn’t make the team. “I felt like I had been cheated,” he said.
Mulligan didn’t fill with self-pity. Instead, he went right back to work, determined to make a travel team the next season.
And he did – a AA team in the spring.
That fall, he landed on a travel A team and was chosen by his teammates to be the captain.
“That season, we finished with the best record in the regular-season, earning the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, but our playoff run was cut short when we failed to get past the No. 16-seed in the first-round. That was the worst feeling I ever had in sports. I had so much hope that I would finally win something, but it all came crashing down,” Mulligan said.
“Since then, the will to stay away from that feeling of pure dejection has been my biggest motivation.”
While in 8th-grade, Mulligan attended a game between bitter rivals Libertyville and Carmel along with some Ice Dogs teammates. “It was an indescribable experience,” Mulligan said. “The stands were full; it was so loud; and it was such a close game.
“Watching that game made me think how much I want to be in that same position, playing for Libertyville.”
Well, Mulligan is now a 4-year player for co-op Libertyville.
Mulligan, who lives in Libertyville and attends Libertyville High School, sports uniform No. 50 and plays center.
“It was a little intimidating playing (varsity) games (as a freshman), but I got used to it,” Mulligan said. “Looking back, it is incredible to envision how I went from a four-year house league player to a four-year varsity player with just a year between the two. I am very thankful for all those who helped me get to where I am today, including coach Joe Townsend, my AA spring coach, my A coach, and, especially, my father.”
Libertyville finished 3-15-4 last season, 11th-place in the 12-team Champions League of the IHSHL North-Central Division. Mulligan had 2 goals, 2 assists in 22 league games.
“(Last season) was very disappointing, to say the least,” Mulligan said. “I thought there were a lot of games that we could have won, but we shot ourselves in the foot. We took far too many penalties that frequently led to goals against. If we had stayed disciplined throughout the year, we could have been successful. Personally, I had an alright season. I could have put the puck in the net more and played a more physical game. On the defensive side of the puck, I thought I was good in our zone.”
Now he’s set for his senior season, starting with improving his goal and assist totals. Plus, he wants to win more faceoffs and play a more physical game, which will lead to better defensive play.
“As for the team, the goal is to win the state championship. Throughout my 15 years of playing six different sports, I have never won a championship. Given that this is my final opportunity, I want to end my career with a bang. We are also looking to finish top three in our division in the regular-season and win the (league) championship,” said Mulligan.
“In the defensive zone, I’m usually pretty low helping out the defense. I’ll get gritty to win a battle to get it up to our wings and build up the rush. Off the rush, I use my speed to get to the net. In the offensive zone, I like to cycle the puck around and look for the open shot, which I’m frequently in front looking for a tip from. I rely more on hard work than skill. I am more than willing to dump and chase rather than look for a pretty goal off the rush.”
Libertyville lost three of its top four point-leaders from league play last season. Junior Sean Goldberg had 3 goals, 13 assists last year.
Joe Townsend steps into the head coaching role this season for the IceCats, joined by assistants Tim Martin and Andrew Walukonis. Townsend has been with the program since 2015 as a varsity assistant coach, and he formerly coached at Loyola Academy.
“When I heard that Joe would be the head coach this year, I was happy. He’s been my assistant coach ever since my freshman year, so I have developed a good relationship with him,” Mulligan said. “So far this season, he has been a great coach. His practices are fast-paced, and he does a great job preparing us. Our assistant coaches also have been great. Assistant coach Tim Martin has been working with me throughout the season to develop my shot. He also has been a great coach for the forwards, instructing us on 1-on-1s, plays off the rush, moving the puck in the offensive zone, and more. Assistant coach Andrew has done a great job helping our defensemen.
“Throughout my four years, there has been (coaching) unpredictability every summer. It has been a little difficult adapting to each coach’s motivational style, and type of play they pursue. And then it’s gone the next year. That’s what makes Joe as our head coach so great. He has been an assistant coach for as long as everyone on this team has been here, so we all know his coaching style.”
“Chris Mulligan embodies all the character traits we want in our student-athletes,” said Libertyville head coach Joe Townsend. “His work-ethic is off the charts as he sets the tone for this team in off ice and on ice workouts. He’s the first to show up and the last to leave. If the season were to occur this year, Chris would be relied on to shut down other teams top lines. He’s in the top pairing of our penalty kill and sees time on our power play.
“I’ve been coaching high school for almost 20 years and you don’t find players like Chris Mulligan very often.”
Mulligan said that, when the quarantine started this past spring, he was focused on weightlifting and improving his strength. In fact, the whole team often worked out together.
“Getting stronger will help me win battles and have adequate energy to persist throughout games,” he said.
And yes, Mulligan does feel pressure in his final season. Heck, the last time he was the captain of his hockey team, they finished with the best record in the regular season. He’s driven to equal that accomplishment. Plus, he wants a championship, period.
“I have yet to win a single championship throughout my 15 years of playing six different sports and with this (being my) last chance, I have placed the utmost pressure on myself to ensure that drought does not grow,” he said. “I also feel pressure from my teammates because they chose me to be their captain, so I need to lead them successfully. And, I feel pressure from my coach because he entrusted me with leading the guys, so I need to deliver on that responsibility.”
Mulligan’s approach is anchored on experience, leadership, and hard work. He is the only four-year player on the team.
“I can be a leader for the younger guys, coaching them on what they can improve on. I bring speed and a good shot that can be utilized off the rush,” he said. “I also bring a sense of defensive skills as a forward. Of our centers, I would say I’m probably one of the more defensive-minded, so that can be used to keep the puck out of our net while they focus more on scoring goals. I know what it takes to win at this level and can tell my teammates what we need to do to achieve success.
“I’m a relatively fast player, though not the fastest on the team. I also have a quick shot, which I use with open space, and a deceptive shot, which I use when I am played tightly by a defenseman. As a big body, I can win board battles and get to the front of the net to look for a tip. Lastly, I work hard, offensively, and defensively. As a back checker, I can prohibit odd-man rushes.”
Mulligan said two of his lasting hockey memories came during his sophomore season. There was, for instance, a fan-filled game against nearby rival Carmel, even though the IceCats lost in a shootout. Then there was a home game that season against Lake Forest – and Mulligan scored the game’s first goal. “I heard the fans explode behind me,” he said. “The (true highlight of that game) was a massive open-ice hit I had and the corresponding eruption of the fans. It was a clean hit, so I was happy with myself. It was probably the best hit I’ve had throughout my high school career.”
Mulligan said he is undecided on his college plans for next fall, though he is looking at Northwestern, Michigan, and Georgetown.
Mulligan also has played four years of high school lacrosse, as a midfielder and face-off man.
And off-the ice, Mulligan got involved in politics as a junior, starting a club at the school, creating a website, and joining a campaign.
Slapshots With … Libertyville Center Chris Mulligan
Favorite NHL Team: Vegas Golden Knights
Favorite NHL Player: Shea Theodore
Favorite Sports-Themed Movie: Miracle
Favorite Pre-Game Meal: Chicken Parmesan
Celebrity You’d Like To Meet: Marc-Andre Fleury
Lacrosse: “Playing lacrosse in the spring helps me stay in shape. Given that it involves a lot of running, it builds up my lungs and gives me the capacity to play harder for longer.”
Giving Thanks: “My dad has been a massive help in taking me from where I was to where I am today (as a player). Even though he never played hockey, he was always looking to help. He drove me to all my practices, found and signed me up for camps that improved my skills, and researched how he could advise me.”
More Thanks: “Another influence I had was, surprisingly, one of my spring Ice Dogs coaches. Having played house league up until 6th grade, I didn’t think I was all that good. However, after trying out for spring travel, I made the AA team. It was intimidating at first, but the coach of the team put his faith in me, coaching me on how to transition to such a high-speed game. With his help, I began to make decisions on the ice faster which led to me becoming a better all-around player.”
Best Hockey Tip: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” – Wayne Gretzky
Teammate Who You Could See As A Hockey Coach: Tyler Svrusis
Hardest Slapshot On Your Team: Sean Goldberg
Most Accurate Shot: Sean Goldberg
Fastest Skater: Brendan Max
Best High School Uniforms (other than Libertyville): Glenbrook North
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.