Former Chicago Mission leader also skated for Chicago Blues, Bruins
By Ross Forman – Erin Rourke-Smith was on the bench, helping coach the Chicago Mission 14U girls’ team for a game March 21, which was the day after the University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team won their second national championship in three years with a thrilling 2-1 overtime victory over Northeastern.
A Mission defenseman turned to Rourke-Smith to comment on the Badgers’ victory.
Rourke-Smith smiled and said, “Isn’t that exciting?!”
The player answered, “I want to be just like Nicole LaMantia.”
Photos Courtesy, University of Wisconsin
LaMantia has brought plenty of smiles to Madison, Wisconsin as she is a junior and now two-time National Champion – with 7 goals, 38 assists in her 97 games for the Badgers, including 1 game-winning goal (this season).
She is the pride of Wayne, Ill., a graduate of Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, with a hockey lineage that includes time skating for the Chicago Blues, Chicago Bruins and the Chicago Mission.
“Nicole is someone who we’ve always kind of known would get her game to the next level. For her to be where she’s at now is not a surprise, not in the least,” said Rourke-Smith, who coached LaMantia for seven seasons, including 10U and 19U.
“I’m ecstatic that her goals and dreams are coming true.
“To see her holding the national championship trophy after they won, you just know that the countless hours that that kid has put into dedicating her craft on the ice,” has paid off.
“She is now achieving what she had in her mind at 12U and 14U – to play for Wisconsin and win a national championship.”
The Badgers slipped past Northeastern last month when Daryl Watts scored the game-winner from behind the net, flicking the puck off the back of a defender who was standing in front of the net, as the puck then slid into the goal.
“It’s been an exciting past few weeks,” LaMantia said. “It was special winning the national championship the first time; this second National Championship, given all of the sacrifices we made all year, made it extra special.
“This title was a lot more surreal, winning in OT. It was a crazy goal in overtime, so fitting for how this year went.”
Photos Courtesy, University of Wisconsin
LaMantia said she watched Watts shoot the puck at the Northeastern defenseman, and then saw it go in – and then Watts skated towards LaMantia in celebration.
“I was in complete shock, just disbelief,” that it went in, she said.
The title is the sixth in Wisconsin program history, tying the Badgers with Minnesota for the most in NCAA Division I history.
The Wisconsin joy certainly sounded throughout Illinois as the Badgers’ roster also features Glenbrook South High School alum Caitlin Schneider.
LaMantia skated for the Blues, the Bruins and mostly for the Mission.
“She’s a good kid and I’m super proud of the young woman she’s (become) – and I’m excited to see where she goes from here,” Rourke-Smith said.
Gino Cavallini, the Mission hockey director, spotlighted her shot and her skillset.
“She’s a hockey player. She wasn’t a girls hockey player (for the Mission); she was a hockey player. She transcended that line,” Cavallini said. “It was and is a pleasure to be on the ice with Lama, who had a bomb of a shot from the point.”
LaMantia’s Illinois legacy included coaching from some local legends, including Todd Finner, Kevin Mann, Steve Maltais, Mike Breslin and Tony Cachey, among others.
Her Illinois skating included her peewee major campaign – under Breslin for the Bruins – when the team battled for the national championships before losing in the semi-finals.
“That season was so special, and we’ve always been super close,” from that team,” LaMantia said. “When we won state and secured our bid to the national championship … that was a moment I’ll never forget.”
LaMantia said skating on boys’ teams was “fun times” and she still is in contact with teammates from those teams.
Her early hockey memories included skating alongside Katie Cipra for the Bruins and the Mission.
The two were opponents last month in the NCAA Women’s Hockey National Championship Game.
They exchanged text messages the day of the national championship and talked briefly before the game. They exchanged a few words, well wishes, with LaMantia adding, “It’s kind of crazy playing a big game and we’re not on the same side.” Cipra agreed and said they both will leave it all on the ice.
The two were Mission teammates during high school, then too battling for the national championship. In fact, they were teamed together as forwards to tie a game – and their line scored.
“We jumped in each other’s arms; it was so crazy. It was a set play and it just worked. I can still remember the celebration like it was yesterday. That was a super special moment,” LaMantia said of the memory some 5-plus years ago.
LaMantia’s Mission memories also include their former red and black uniforms – and the switch to neon green.
“The people there with the Mission were special, had so much influence on me,” LaMantia said.
Particularly Coach Cachey, who has remained close friends with LaMantia – and sent her a best wishes text before the national championship game last month.
“He always cared about everyone off-the-ice. It didn’t matter to him if we won or lost, as long as you were a good person and treated people with respect and gave your all, all the time. He taught us so many lessons beyond hockey. I was really fortunate to play for him,” LaMantia said of Cachey.
LaMantia said her Illinois memory bank also includes a few wins over powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s, and more.
“She was good then (as a 10U), the backbone of that team. She was good on the boys team at the time and great on the girls team,” Rourke-Smith said. “She always has been one of the hardest workers and has long had natural talent.
“She had great hands and could see the ice well. She was willing to put in a little extra effort to … get faster, get a harder shot, do all the things to improve. As a result, she is a very good, well-rounded player.”
Rourke-Smith added: “She was the quarterback on the ice, the complete package.”
When asked what she’d say to the future generation of Illinois hockey players, particularly girls, LaMantia said: Always have fun.
“The thing in my head for every game has always been to have fun, play loose. When you no longer have fun, games and practices kind of become a chore, something that you don’t look forward to,” said LaMantia, who will return to Madison in the fall for her fourth season – and a shot at her third national championship.