JOLIET – When the final horn sounded in the early evening of Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, the members of the Jaguar Hockey Club’s U18 Elite team found themselves looking up from the short end of a 4 – 2 final score.
Despite all they had accomplished since the season’s fledgling days in September and October of 2016 – enough to earn the third seed going into the post-season tournament -- they had again fallen short of attaining the ultimate goal … the championship in the highest division of the Northern Illinois Hockey League.
“That loss was a tough blow for that group,” said Coach Griffin Schiele. “We thought we had the team to get it done last year.”
For 10 members of the Jaguars’ current U18 squad – the players who remain from that runner-up team – that loss has served as a reminder and a motivator throughout the current season.
They knew that very few hockey players from in and around Northern Illinois ever get the opportunity to play for a NIHL championship, the equivalent of a Stanley Cup for travel hockey players between the ages of 6 and 18. Even fewer fall short one year, but earn the opportunity to gain redemption on Inwood Ice Arena ice during a championship weekend the next year.
The Jaguars’ U18 team will, however, have that very opportunity when they faceoff with the Skokie Flyers at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24.
“Everyone is excited to have another shot at a championship this Saturday,” noted Schiele, who has coached the U18 team – traditionally classified as Midgets in hockey vernacular – for the past eight years. “The league does a great job with the event, and it is something special to take part in, especially being in our home building.”
The Jaguar Hockey Club hosts the two championship weekends, which culminate the league playoffs, at Inwood Ice Arena each year. This year, the playoff series is known as the NIHL Blackhawks Tournament following a new sponsorship agreement announced at the start of the season by NIHL, the largest youth hockey league in Illinois, and the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks.
There will be 21 championship games played at Inwood over the course of the next two weekends, beginning with the first puck drop at 9 a.m. on Saturday.
“My experience of the NIHL Championship is just an amazing feeling,” explained Brandon Stornello, 17, one of the returners from last year’s team. “Having another shot to win this game just gives us a reason to work harder and to earn it.
“We now know to take those chances that we have and what it will take to be successful. Winning the NIHL Championship will show who I am as a person, because it will show that I can push myself through the tough battles and to prepare for major events.”
“Winning the NIHL Championship would prove to me that all the years of hard work and the growth of me and my teammates have paid off,” added Blake Paquin, who at age 18 is in his final year of playing for the Jaguar Hockey Club.
“Having another shot at winning the NIHL Championship means a lot to me because it’s my last year and nothing would be better than ending my youth hockey career as a champion.”
Jake Ciszek, a senior at Joliet West High School who is also in his final season of eligibility, echoed the sentiments of Paquin, himself an alumnus of Joliet West. Having played his entire career with the Jaguars, Paquin is the longest-tenured current player. Stornello, who attends Lockport High School, has had the second-longest career with the club.
“Winning the NIHL Championship would be the greatest thing that could happen in my hockey career,” said Ciszek, who is in his eighth season with the Jaguars. “To win it in my final season would be incredible. I’ve had many ups and many, many downs in these past eight years, but I worked hard through both to get to this point now, and to go out a champion would be the absolute greatest thing I could ask for.”
A championship for this team would not be something just asked for. It would be something earned and paid for by not only the 19 members and the coaches of this current team, but a string of team members who have come before them.
The current squad – which includes nine new players whom Schiele terms “quality guys who had to fill some big shoes and immediately began making contributions” – has done the work necessary to get where it is. The team compiled a 16 – 1 – 4 record in NIHL to finish second to the undefeated Flyers during the regular season. They then went 3 – 0 – 0 during the playoffs, with wins over the Champaign Chiefs (4 – 1), the Rockford Roadrunners (5 – 0), and the Vipers from Pleasant Prairie, Wis. (5 – 2).
The roster includes Ciszek, Paquin, Stornello, Brandyn Collins, Samuel Sterioti, Chance Reese, Nico Circelli, Nicholas Podlesak, Brock Imel, Daniel Prochaska, Brennan Burtar, Dustyn Perona, Robert Gaffney, Daniel Tiffany, Quinn Fessler, Riley Carr, Blaise Smith, Caleb Conrad, and Jeremy Pietrarosso. Joining Schiele behind the bench are assistant coaches Greg Stornello, the club’s hockey director; Jack D’Arcy; and Steve Targett.
“It has taken a lot of work from a lot of people to achieve that level of success,” said Schiele in discussing not only the record of the current team, but also the past efforts on which that success has been built.
“That first year was rough,” recalled Schiele of this initial season with the Jaguars after his was signed on as a coach by Greg Stornello, who is also the father of Brandon. “We won one regular season game with our only Midget team, but it was a start.
“In the years since, the club has been able to consistently put a championship contender on the ice at the U18 level, with two previous finals appearances and three third-place finishes. But, we still have not achieved our ultimate goal of winning a championship.”
Nevertheless, Greg Stornello still praises the accomplishments of Schiele and the team.
“Returning to back-to-back NIHL Championship games, and their third in the last four seasons, helps show the depth the Jaguar program has,” said the hockey director. “As the director, I’m proud of this returning Midget Major team, along with the new additions. Having your top-age team in the program pave the way for the young players helps continue to grow the base of the Joliet Jaguar program and our hockey community.”
This year, the club fielded a total of 21 teams, including the U18 team and two teams at the U16 (Midget Minor) level. It also has a vibrant development program for young players not yet ready for travel hockey.
“It has taken a lot of work from a lot of people to achieve this level of success,” Schiele said. “Our board has stayed committed to providing an environment for these athletes to develop as hockey players and people. The organization’s entire coaching staff, from Mites (U8) to Midgets, spends countless hours developing these players and preparing them for the next level.”
His players recognize that fact, but still single Schiele out for his specific contributions.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Griff motivating us as a team and individually, I believe we wouldn’t have been as great of a team as we are today,” Paquin said. “We have come together not only as a team, but as a family. This team has, by far, been the most passionate, caring, and loving team I have ever been on.
“We care for each other so much individually and as a team, and we will rise together. No one will be better than another. We are either great together or nothing at all.”
Brandon Stornello continued the thought.
“Every team has its ups and downs, but this team isn’t just a bunch of guys out to play,” he said. “It’s a big family that helps each other out … no matter what.”
And now, that family is looking for the highest of ups it can have.
“For this group of players, many of whom have played the majority of their youth hockey careers with the Jaguars, to win a championship,” Schiele concluded, “would be a great way to celebrate the collective effort from everyone in this organization.”
ABOUT THE NIHL BLACKHAWKS TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Northern Illinois Hockey League is the largest youth hockey league in the state of Illinois. The league, for the first time, has teamed up this year 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 team at 4:30 p.m. Saturday will be just one of 21 NIHL championship contests to be played at Inwood during the two championship weekends. In addition to the games Feb. 24 and 25, action will continue the following weekend, March 2, 3 and 4.
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.