The “Jaguar ‘02 Farewell Tour” will come to its crescendo in the very place it all began.
The Jaguar Hockey Club’s U18 Elite team will take the ice at the place their hockey life began, Inwood Ice Arena in Joliet, at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, for the NIHL-Blackhawks Tournament Championship game, the culmination of the Northern Illinois Hockey League season for the 19 members of the team.
For 10 of the Jaguars known as ‘02s because they were born in 2002 -- as well as a trio of ‘01s -- it will be the conclusion of their NIHL careers; careers that in some cases stretch across more than a decade and, for several of the players, careers that have been intertwined since first, hesitant steps onto the ice as U8 Mites or even younger.
“To be able to guide these players through their final season, and help them earn a spot in the show couldn't make me more proud,” Head Coach Christopher Luedtke said. “It is that chance to place a huge exclamation mark at this chapter in their hockey careers.”
“Being able to finish our NIHL career in that building and the game that most of us have dreamed about playing in since we started in this league is a surreal feeling, and I couldn’t be more excited to do it with the best group of boys around,” said goaltender Joseph Ambroffi, a 17-year-old from Plainfield who first stepped between the pipes as a Jaguar 10 years ago as a second-year Mite.
Mite is the traditional term for the youngest travel hockey players, a division now known as 8U (signifying that the players are age 8 and under).
Over those many seasons together, these Jaguars have forged more than the ability to play well enough together to win hockey games. They have solidified bonds that they all agree go beyond the ice, beyond that of mere teammates, and that will last far beyond this weekend’s championship game.
“There is a unique bond that the Jaguar organization helps form,” adds Dustyn Perona, an ‘01 who attends Plainfield High School and started with the Jaguars 14 years ago. “I have played both CSDHL (Central States Developmental Hockey League) and NIHL and can say, without a doubt in my mind, that the Jaguars club forms the best bond out of any club or league.
“I’ve made friends I know will be with me through whatever happens and have my back no matter what.”
“It’s like nothing else,” explains Brandon Weitzel, a senior at Morris Community High School who has donned Jaguar jerseys for 14 years. “I’d do anything for my brothers,” he says of his teammates, “and I know they would do the same for me. Our bond cannot be re-created, ever. This bond is strong enough to last a lifetime.”
In fact, seemingly to a man, “brothers” is the go-to word they use to describe one another.
“The brotherhood is like no other experience; the bond is as strong as family, sometimes stronger,” said Layne Brubaker-Egner, a senior at Joliet West High School and 10-year Jaguar.
The forward best known to everyone by the nickname given to him years ago on ice, Blueberry, adds, “We will always have each others’ back, on and off the ice.”
“These are bonds that I will cherish and stay in touch with for the rest of my life,” adds Ambroffi, who was in the net for each of the three victories last weekend that elevated the U18 team to this weekend’s championship game.
“These boys are not only people I can go to in order to have fun, but for any problem in life, because I know they are there for me, just like I am there for them, no questions asked.”
“I just love these boys and would do anything for them,” Perona agrees.
“Over just the last two seasons with these boys, we've played over 125 games, been to showcases and tournaments all over the country, and through all of the successes and all of the failures alike, these boys have always been there for each other,” remarked Luedtke, who noted that he previously coached many of these young men as Mites and Squirts (U10) when he was just starting his coaching tenure in Joliet.
“As a coach, I make sure to protect that brotherhood, to pass it along, and teach the players to respect it. Through the brotherhood of hockey here at the Jaguars, these boys will share a special bond for the rest of their lives. That's enough to make any coach smile from ear to ear, regardless of the final standings.”
Those bonds among these players have seemingly also helped those final standings, undoubtedly playing a role in the success that has allowed this group of mostly 17-year-olds to create the “noise” around U18 youth hockey in Illinois and beyond this season that has built to the roar that will be heard at Inwood on Saturday.
“I expect every one of my players to enjoy and savor every last minute of the entire day on Saturday,” said Luedtke, who is usually known as Coach Probie. “Whether we succeed on the scoreboard or do not, the boys worked extremely hard all season for this opportunity and should be able to be youthful in their experience.
“I will ask that all of my players reflect on what caused them to fall in love with this amazing sport so long ago, and to let that passion show through in every shift that they play on Saturday. Passion, desire, hard work and brotherhood is the lifeblood of our sport, and this is what I expect us to enjoy all day on Saturday.”
Afterall, they are what these players have enjoyed all season and throughout their careers.
And they are what has prevented Ambroffi from thinking of this season as a farewell tour, rather than as a series of moments for these long-time teammates to be together
“I am embracing this season with the boys one game, one period, one practice at a time because that’s how we will get the most satisfaction, instead of looking at the end picture of us splitting up,” Ambroffi explained.
“For the players, individually, I think that each player is taking the end of their own era in a little different way,” Luedtke noticed. “Some show their emotion more than others, but as their coach, I encourage them to savor every moment they have with their teammates.”
Those teammates include Ambroffi, Weitzel, Brubaker-Egner, and Perona, along with other outgoing seniors Maxwell Krause, Aidan Ogarek, Joshua McDonald, Jayden Tkaczuk, Spencer Graziano, Erik Noon, Cole Walsh, Kevin Stewart, and Cody Comparetto. Austin Parr, Tyler Zelinski, Kevin Lynch, Maximos Sterioti, Connor Podlesak and Jack Lombardi complete the team.
Coming into Saturday’s championship game against the top-seeded Bloomington Thunder, the Jaguars boast a 31-24-6 overall record. That record includes a third-place regular-season finish in NIHL league play, historic success in the National Junior Prospects Premier Hockey League, and play in the CCM World Invite that made people stand up and take notice.
For Ambroffi, the team’s 2-1-1 record in the prestigious World Invite back in November is actually the highlight of the 2019-2020 season, thus far.
“It’s hard to pick one specific highlight from the season because there are so many,” Ambroffi remarked, “but if I had to pick one it would be playing in the World Invite. We went into that tournament with everything against us and not being expected to compete, yet we came out 2-1-1 and played some of the best hockey that we had this year against some of the best talent we saw all year.”
“We came in as underdogs, not expecting to do anything, and we ended up tying the Canadian Hawks,” recalled Brubaker-Egner.
He was referring to the Jaguars’ completely unexpected, come-from-behind 6-6 tie against the Caledon Hawks Midget AA team, one of the top tier teams in Canada’s Ontario Midget AA rankings.
That weekend also included wins over the San Diego Junior Gulls 18U AA team and San Jose Jr. Sharks 18UU AA team.
For Weitzel, the season’s highlight came from NJP play.
The fact that the Jaguars, with a 12-12-1 record in showcase play, posted more wins and the greatest number of standings points (25) by any Jaguar team at any level in NJP play ever could have been enough on its own for Weitzel to feel that way.
For Weitzel, who will be continuing his hockey career at Northern Illinois University in the fall, however, those marks were eclipsed by a single goal. Of course, that one goal was the game winning goal tallied when he gathered up his own rebound on a breakaway with less than a second left in overtime to give the Jaguars the NJP Tournament Series Championship over the higher-rated Twin Bridges Lightning.
Even if there are no such heroics on Saturday, Weitzel and his teammates are hoping for one more highlight to add to their season and that inal exclamation point to punctuate their careers to which their coach alluded.
But given the nature of the bond among these players, just having the opportunity to have another memorable moment together will be an opportunity to cherish.
“It's like the ending of a great movie, like ‘Miracle,’ Brubaker-Egner supposed. “The feeling is incredible and I have no words for it.”
ABOUT THE NIHL-BLACKHAWKS TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Northern Illinois Hockey League is the largest youth hockey league in the state of Illinois. The league has teamed up with the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League to present the annual season-ending tournament weekends, which are presented each year at Inwood Ice Arena in Joliet, in partnership with the Jaguar Hockey Club.
The NIHL-Blackhawks Tournament Championship game involving the Jaguars U18 Elite team at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22, will be just one of 22 NIHL championship contests to be played at Inwood during the two championship weekends. It will be immediately preceded at 2:30 p.m. with the Jaguars Peewee 1 team vying for a title at the U12 Elite level vs. St. Jude.
Play begins at 9 a.m. each day, this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 22 and 23, and continues next weekend.
The games are open to the public. An admission fee is charged.
All games will also be live-streamed on the Internet by Jaguar Television. You can link to the broadcasts from the Jaguar TV link on www.jaguarhockeyclub.com.
Brackets and scheduled game times can be found on the NIHL website at www.nihl.info.