JOLIET – The majority of youth hockey players who take to the ice in and around northern Illinois never advance to a league championship game.
For those who do, it is often the culmination of a career, coming numerous years and countless games after they first tied up a pair of skates, strapped on a helmet, and took those first tentative strides on a fresh sheet of ice.
For a group of youth hockey players from the Joliet-based Jaguar Hockey Club, however, neither of those scenarios quite rings true.
The 12 members of the team Frank Silva coaches will have the opportunity at 12:45 p.m. Saturday, March 2, to play for a Northern Illinois Hockey League (NIHL) championship. They will take on the top-seeded Admirals from Glen Ellyn, who advanced to the game with a 5-1 win over the Addison Bruins.
And, while it is true that the members of Silva’s team have waited their entire youth hockey careers for this rare opportunity, the number of years and games leading up to this possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience are a bit – OK, maybe more than a bit – fewer than those of many who have stepped onto the Inwood Ice Arena rink for NIHL championship games before them.
Silva’s team plays in the Kane Division at what, in common hockey vernacular, is known as the Mite level. In other words, they are all 8 years old or younger, and are completing either their first or second year of playing travel hockey.
“I think it is amazing for these young hockey players to have such a successful season,” said Coach Silva, who has coached with the Jaguar organization since the spring of 2014. “I mean, to make it to the NIHL championship at such a young age will only show them why we work so hard in practice, and why things are so repetitive. This opportunity may never happen again, although we all hope it will, but it’s a tough road to make it here.”
Just how tough was never more evident than in the team’s semifinal game against the Chicago Stallions, whom the Jaguars had lost to twice during the regular season.
The Jaguars fell behind 1-0 midway through the second period of the win-or-go-home game. They responded quickly, however, tying things up when Martin Plecki converted an assist from Jake Swan just 10 seconds after the Stallions scored.
The score remained 1-1 through the remainder of regulation, setting the stage for some heroics off the stick of the Jaguars’ Jakob Graham. Graham netted an unassisted goal early in the extra period to send his squad to the NIHL Blackhawks Tournament championship game.
“Their reaction was priceless,” recalled Silva of the minutes following Graham’s game-winning goal. “Almost every player had tears of joy and excitement. However, I’m not sure they fully comprehend what’s in store for them with the big show. They will soon find out.”
Since the Jaguar Hockey Club hosts the NIHL Blackhawks Tournament Championship games each year, the members of Silva’s team may have a clearer idea of what the big show entails than do players on other teams, including the Admirals, but the experience is still different when you are a participant in the game instead of just a spectator.
“It means a lot to me,” said Plecki, age 8, “because me and my team worked hard to get here and we may never have this chance again.”
“It feels good that our hard work is paying off,” added Cael Watson, 7.
“I expect that the Joliet Jaguars Mite 2 team will come out ready to work and fight, but most of all have fun no matter what the outcome will be,” said Silva, who is confident that this season has prepared his players for the championship game.
To get to this point, the team has compiled an overall record of 22-10-4, including a 9-5-2 regular season NIHL record, which was good enough for third place behind the Admirals (14-0-2) and the Stallions (12-2-2). This team is also tournament tested, having taken home gold medals this season from two tournaments, one in St. Louis and one here in Chicagoland.
It is not the numbers nor the hardware by which Silva marks the success of his squad, however.
“The greatest highlight and accomplishment would be to look back at our first practice and to see how much we have grown,” remarked Silva. “It’s an understatement to say we have become a great team. That is the greatest gift a coach can ask for.”
He doesn’t quite admit to it out loud, but on a personal level for Silva, this season has provided another gift to him that may be just as great – the opportunity to share the success with his son, Anthony, who is a member of the title-game-bound team.
“This is the first year coaching my son, so this has been a learning experience for me, as well,” he readily admitted.
“There is so much personality with this young group,” Silva shared. “They are funny, quiet, chatterboxes, emotional, serious, and daydreamers. So, for me, this has been a challenging, but epic season, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Making up that eclectic group of youngsters are Graden Subler, Jayden Degnan, Keegan Driscoll, Derek Przybyla, Violet McCann, Vincent Mendoza, goaltender Harrison Beall, Watson, Plecki, Swan, Graham, and the younger Silva.
Coach Silva is joined behind the bench by assistant coaches Rory Subler and Toby Beall, while Paula Subler is the team’s manager.
Silva is quick to pass along some of the credit for the team’s success to these individuals.
“I would like to thank my coaching staff, Toby and Rory, for their time and dedication,” he said, adding, “we couldn’t have done it without you. And, Paula, our team manager, for always being on the ball with whatever we throw at her.”
He also credits his wife in part for the success, but mostly for putting up with the hectic schedule of a coach.
“I would like to thank my wife, Nikki, for putting up with me and my coaching throughout the years. Coaching is a big deal, a huge commitment, and she has never complained about it. She always has my back, and always will!”
In turn, Silva has the backs of each of the kids on his roster -- “I want the kids to know I will never give up on them, and I hope they will never give up on me” – and he gives them the lion’s share of the credit for the success they are experiencing.
“There is no doubt,” he said, “that if they keep pushing they will continue to succeed, and I will always be here to cheer them on.
“I am a coach because of the kids,” Silva continued with a bit of reverie, “and the passion I have for this sport itself. There is no other feeling quite like helping young athletes further their natural persistence, determination, discipline, resilience, work ethic, heart, leadership skills, connection with, and respect for others, not only in competition, but in life!
“This team has been a great experience all the way around, from learning, team bonding, discipline, work ethic, and having fun.”
That fact was not lost on 8-year-old Graden Subler. “I’m excited and, not matter what, I’m proud of how my team played this season,” Graden said. “It took a lot of hard work and fun to get here.”
“One thing they all have in common,” Silva added of Graden and his teammates, “is they have awesome smiles when they are having fun.”
So, win or lose on Saturday, what Silva is really hoping for after the game is a locker room full of smiling faces.
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 second straight year, 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 U8 team at 12:45 p.m. Saturday will be just one of 23 NIHL championship contests to be played at Inwood during the two championship weekends. In addition to the games March 1, 2 and 3, a total of 11 games were played at the Joliet ice arena last 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.
Brackets and scheduled game times can be found on the NIHL website at www.nihl.info.
Tag(s): Mite 2