Champaign Chiefs spread local youth hockey buzz

Champaign Chiefs spread local youth hockey buzz

On March 8, results were released pertaining to a study commissioned by College Hockey, Inc., the NHL and the NHLPA.

The result: "The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men's hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois," according to College Hockey, Inc., executive director Mike Snee.

Fast forward to March 13, and the Illini men's club hockey team earned a runner-up finish in the American Collegiate Hockey Association national championship game.

But hockey is not just buzzing on the U of I campus.

And it's not only for college athletes in east central Illinois.

The place is Springfield's Nelson Arena. The date is Feb. 14.

The Champaign Chiefs are taking on the Bloomington Sharks in the Lincoln Land High School Hockey League title game.

It's a matchup of the postseason's first and second seeds.

"It was intense," said goaltender Gabe Horgan, a Salt Fork freshman. "We weren't talking at all. We were just thinking about how we wanted to play."

After a scoreless first period, Champaign fell behind 1-0 early in the second period on a power-play strike from Bloomington's Samuel Fewkes. But Oakwood freshman Brady Howard responded 8 1 / 2 minutes later, with an assist from St. Thomas More senior JP Ridge.

"I think we were just confident with ourselves," Ridge said. "The Champaign organization had never won the league before, so we didn't feel like we needed to (stress)."

What turned out to be the game-winner came with roughly eight minutes to play in the second period, when Danville sophomore Joey Bunton tallied with the man advantage.

Thanks to that, and 17 saves from Horgan in net, the Chiefs captured the program's first league tournament title.

"It was fun because I've played in that league, and we've come close all three years — we've lost in the semifinals," Oakwood senior Kamden Howard said. "It's just a really incredible feeling. It was really exciting to do what we were doing."

Getting their start

Let's back this up a bit. Because there's more to the local youth hockey scene than this one team, or this single achievement.

The Chiefs exist within the Champaign-Urbana Youth Hockey Association. The organization hosts seven travel teams, with the high school squad the last possible stop for a player. There's also a house league and a "Minor Hawks" program for youngsters trying to learn the game.

Nick Fabbrini serves as the CUYHA director of coaching and oversees the high school team, as well as multiple others. That name may be familiar to the U of I faithful — Fabbrini is the Illinois men's club coach as well.

High school team members come from a number of directions to be part of the six-team Lincoln Land league. Representation comes or has come from athletes at Champaign Central, Centennial, St. Thomas More, Mahomet-Seymour, Danville, Salt Fork and Oakwood, among other local high schools.

"A good portion of these guys play for different organizations and still enjoy the opportunity to come back and play with the guys they grew up playing with," Fabbrini said, "while also being able to represent their communities."

Such options for "different organizations" exist with the likes of the Danville Heat. Both Horgan and the Howard brothers first tested their hockey mettle in the Danville program.

"At first, I think we didn't like it because we didn't know how to skate and didn't understand," said Howard, a hockey center who has previously taken part in golf, track and baseball with Oakwood. "But as we got going, we were like, 'This is fun.'"

Horgan's mother, Deana, said her son learned how to skate and play hockey simultaneously in elementary school. Gabe quickly became hooked on the sport. And then he was asked to don the goaltender's gear.

Though Deana had her reservations about Gabe going head to head — sometimes literally — with vulcanized rubber, her son had no such qualms.

"He tried it out, and he absolutely loved it," Deana said. "He's sort of a natural at it. You either love it or you hate it. That's what we found out."

Ridge, who also competes in soccer and tennis for St. Thomas More, more or less stumbled into hockey. The defenseman admits he doesn't really watch the sport on television, but he fell in love with taking the ice himself thanks to a peer.

"A close friend of mine actually brought me a stick and some gear, and I put it on and was messing around," Ridge said. "And then he brought me out to Bloomington's Pepsi Ice Center, I got on the ice and that triggered it from there."

Quick turnaround

The high school Chiefs weren't exactly destined to be Lincoln Land champions in 2018. The club boasted just two seniors — Ridge and Kamden Howard — before opening the campaign with a 4-1 setback against Decatur.

"(The season-opening loss) was an eye opener," Kamden Howard said. "So we were just like, 'Wow, we're going to need to step it up.' We started to get more focused at practice."

After a 2-3 start, the Chiefs lost just one in their final 10 regular-season games. The turning point, according to Ridge and Kamden Howard, was a 6-4 triumph against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin on Dec. 21.

"We noticed we were actually a team that could compete with anyone," Ridge said. "We were clicking."

For Fabbrini's money, the entire December and January stretch proved critical for his crew, which practices twice a week over at the U of I Ice Arena.

"We were able to win a lot of the close games this year," Fabbrini said. "It was definitely a turning point in December and January when we kind of played everybody else in the league and felt like if we played our game and played the way we were capable of, it was sort of our league to lose this year."

That turned out to be an accurate prediction. After a first-round bye in the postseason, Champaign blew past Decatur 8-1 before squaring off with Bloomington, from whom the Chiefs had taken two of three regular-season showdowns.

The rest, as they say, is history.

With the IHSA not acknowledging hockey as a sanctioned sport, Champaign's athletes have found even more drive to represent their respective schools on the ice.

"It motivates us to get our name out there so people do notice," Kamden Howard said. "That's what this championship did. People said 'Good job' at school."

And with only Kamden Howard and Ridge moving on after this historic season — both said they desire to continue playing hockey in college — the Chiefs have a good foundation in place to repeat this success next year.

"The team's bonded really well," Horgan said. "I never expected to become friends with all of (my teammates). The way we played, it astonished me how well we came together."

Preps coordinator Colin Likas writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at clikasNG.

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