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SHL tops CCHL in inaugural All-Star game

By Gary Larsen, 01/04/23, 10:30AM CST


12/30/22: SHL 6, CCHL 2

League pride carried the day on Dec. 29, when the Scholastic Hockey League and the Chicago Catholic Hockey league squared off for bragging rights in the inaugural SHL-CCHL All-Star game.

The SHL gets to brag for a year, after walking away with the game's Old Wooden Skate trophy.

“I just want to thank the coaches and everyone for putting it together,” Glenbrook North’s Owen Just said. “It was a really, really incredible experience.

“The Catholic League is very talented. We play against them all year and we have trouble with them all year. I know a lot of those guys as individuals. But we had high expectations for that game and we needed to win it. We came together well and we did it.”

The 2022 Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves hosted the inaugural High School All-Star Face Off, at Allstate Arena in Rosemont. Coaches and managers in both leagues selected their respective rosters.

The SHL’s 6-2 win over the CCHL featured a 3-0 first-period lead constructed on goals from Just and Glenbrook South’s Owen Almburg and Jason Ban.

The SHL got second-period goals from Lake Forest’s Robert Medica and Glenbrook North’s Aiden Siegel and a final goal from Stevenson’s Davis Jegers in the third. The CCHL got a second-period goal from Providence Catholic’s Vinny Felice and a third-period goal from Benet’s Cole Rosenthal that ended the day’s scoring.

It was a high-flying first period from the SHL that set the tone. No one could have anticipated the quick chemistry that unfolded among SHL players, and the first two periods saw a large edge in offensive zone presence by the SHL.

“I think our speed caught them off guard a little,” said Glenbrook North coach Evan Poulakidas. “But they had a good third period and I think they just had to get used to the speed as the game wore on; as it did, they met our speed.”

Poulakidas skippered the SHL squad along with assistants Tom Wood of Stevenson, Jim Philbin of Glenbrook South, and Steve Martins of Barrington.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Martins, who played 267 NHL games before ending his career with the Chicago Wolves for three seasons, ending in 2009.

“The Wolves treated him like royalty walking in there, which was nice,” Poulakidas said. “It was like a return to home for him and the organization was just so complimentary of how he was as a Wolve.”

Prior to the game, players from various teams milled about making smalltalk in the Allstate Arena lobby before heading to the locker room to dress for the game. Once there, Poulakidas’ request for the SHL’s all-star players was simple:

“He told us before the game that it was an honor for us to represent the SHL and that now we had to back it up,” Glenbrook South’s Zack Freimuth said. “We had to put on a show because we know our league is held to a high standard. It was an honor to represent the SHL as the best league in the state.

“(The CCHL) has a bunch of skilled guys in their league, too, and that helped because we had to be on our game. It helped us get our feet under us and get our feet going early. They have some great players in that league.”

New Trier’s Aleks Cheris agreed.

“They were competitive, I just thought we were a little bit stronger,” Cheris said. “They’ve got some really good players. I thought we just came out stronger and faster but I think they had more shots than us in that third period.”

The SHL struck first just 20 seconds into the g gagame when Glenbrook South’s Owen Almburg buried a shot from the right side, on assists from Just and Freimuth. The SHL was off and running from there in building a 16-5 edge in first-period shots.

Almburg’s goal lit an early fire under the SHL.

“That early goal amped us up a bit,” Saint Viator’s Angelo Massaro said. “We didn’t score for a while after that but once we did, we knew we could shut them down and get the job done.”

York goaltender Adam Kaczmarek agreed.

“After that first goal we got a feeling for the way the rest of the game was going to go,” Kaczmarek said. “They have some very talented guys. I just think we’re a bit deeper. And it was just cool getting to know guys you’ve played against in the SHL, and what they’re actually like. They were all pretty cool guys.”

Glenbrook South’s Luke Winger was in net for the first period, Kaczmarek took the second, and Saint Viator’s Dom Grimaldi handled the third period between the pipes.

Carmel’s Leon Swiatkowski, who partnered in back with Lake Forest defenseman Medica, was asked afterwards who among his SHL teammates impressed him in the game.

“All of them, to be honest, but the one who stuck out the most to me was Winger,” Swiatkowski said. “I knew he was good but I didn’t know how good he was until we got into that game. In the one period he played he had a few crazy saves that I was not expecting.”

The SHL made it 2-0 with 2:55 left to play in the first period, when Ban scored on an assist from York’s Frank Nicosia, and it was 3-0 when Just scored on an assist from Jegers with 24 seconds remaining in the first period.

The chemistry among the first line trio of Jegers, Just, and Freimuth was simply off the charts.

“I thought Freimuth was really good. He can do a lot of damage against teams,” Poulakidas said. “That first line was unbelievable. All the coaches were like ‘can you imagine having this on your team?’”

Freimuth was beyond impressed with line mates Just and Jegers.

“They blew me away. I’ve played against them and it’s obviously a lot to keep up with them. When you’re playing with them and they get every loose puck and they’re just flying out there, you have to keep up,” Freimuth said. “That was a lot of fun. I think those are the best two wingers in the state and it was an honor to center them.”

Vinny Felice made it 3-1 early in the second period, with assists to Saint Ignatius’ Victor Ventura and Providence Catholic’s Nico Felice. Medica’s goal followed off a Cheris feed with 10:18 left in the period to make it 4-1. Siegel scored to make it 5-1 with 1:21 remaining, with assists to Ban and Medica.

The SHL posted a 9-6 edge in shots in the second period.

It was 6-1 when Jegers scored off a Just feed at the 15:39 mark of the third period before Rosenthal ended the day’s scoring at 5:55, on assists from Brother Rice’s Jack Keaty and Fenwick’s Sean Pondelicek. 

The CCHL found its groove in the third period, outshooting the SHL 18-9 in the final frame.

“The CCHL battled really hard and honestly, had Grimaldi not played so well in the third period, that could have been a lot closer than the score indicated,” Poulakidas said. “He probably came up with four or five A-plus saves in the third period.”

Just finished with a goal and two assists to lead the SHL in points, while Jegers and Medica had one goal and one assist apiece.

“They’re all very good hockey players so it was just very easy to figure out how they play,” Jegers said of his SHL teammates. “I knew Just from before high school but I never knew Zack so it was good to get to know him, and it was just fun to play with kids from the surrounding area.

“The SHL has its rivalries but the SHL as a whole — we like to see ourselves as the better league.”

Just enjoyed the quick camaraderie that took root.

“My favorite part was just coming together as a league,” Just said. “We compete against each other every single day against some of the best teams and coaches in the state. Putting a bunch of super-skilled guys together and seeing how they’d work together was a challenge in itself, but we came together well; good coaching, good players, and surprisingly good chemistry with guys I’ve never really played with before.”

Cheris also enjoyed the seeming contradiction of heated rivals embracing each other — for at least a day.

“It’s usually the guys you hate when you play against them, so coming together as a team with those guys was a lot of fun,” Cheris said. “It was an awesome time and a lot of fun seeing all the guys from different teams come together,”

Cheris was also asked if he was particularly impressed by any of his SHL all-star teammates.

“Definitely (GBS' Owen) Almburg,” Cheris said. “I’ve played against him a lot and that day I really saw how good he is. He’s a good shot, a lock-down defenseman, and he can play the body well.”

Both Massaro and Medica also appreciated what New Trier’s Tyler Smith brought to the equation.

“His hands were so impressive and when you play against someone you don’t notice something like that because you’re focused on what you have to do,” Massaro said. “But just sitting there you could actually see his skill level.”

Medica also appreciated an intangible that Smith brought to the team of all-stars.

“He was kind of the chatterbox in the locker room and guys gravitated to him. He taped a ‘K’ on his jersey for captain, he joked around, and he gave us something to laugh about the entire time,” Medica said.

Ultimately, Swiatkowski echoed two points that every player interviewed expressed.

“We all had that mindset to prove we’re the best league in the state and it was a great opportunity to play in that game, and to play at Allstate Arena.” Swiatkowski said “Playing on a stage like that was just awesome.”

Other players chosen to play for the SHL all-stars were New Trier’s Will Cusick, Saint Viator’s Jake Knieling, Glenbrook North’s Michael Dimoff and Jacob Smith, and Stevenson’s Tristan Caridei, Dylan Jette, and Will Harlow.

“The kids got along, there was camaraderie, fun on the bench,” Poulakidas said. “Here they are, guys who are enemies on the ice all year but for three hours, they were friends and teammates.

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years and it was one of the finest days in hockey I’ve ever had. It really was an incredible day.”