This Saturday the Lake Forest College men's hockey team will travel to downtown Chicago to face off against Aurora University at Johnny's IceHouse West, the practice facility of the Chicago Blackhawks for the last seven years. The game will begin at 5:00 p.m.
Up until the completion of Johnny's IceHouse West, which opened on February 1, 2010, the Blackhawks practiced at The Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville, Illinois, which is located about 20 miles northwest of the United Center.
Lake Forest College senior forward, Shawn Nelson, is just one of two players on the team from Illinois, the other being his younger brother Troy.
Nelson, a native of Naperville, Illinois, played three years of high school hockey for Naperville Central and was awarded High School Player of the Year his senior season in 2012. Nelson then went on to play two years with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs before coming to Lake Forest.
Coming back to the Chicago area was an easy decision for Nelson.
"I was looking at a lot of schools on the east coast but at the end of the day I went with what my gut was telling me," Nelson said. "The city of Chicago is so unique and an opportunity to play college hockey and go to school an hour away from home was something I could not pass up. I think a lot of people just think of Lake Forest College as a small liberal arts school outside of Chicago but this college has given me so much from hockey, teachers, friends, and the experiences I've had. I wouldn't change it for anything."
Nick Schmaltz, who is in his second season with the Blackhawks, also has a connection to the city of Chicago as he spent three seasons commuting back and forth from Madison, Wisconsin, to play for the Chicago Mission AAA Program.
"Having Johnny's downtown is convenient for us because of its location," Schmaltz said. "Being so close to the United Center and being right downtown is ideal for the guys as many of us live in the city. It is also big for the city of Chicago as a whole to have a rink right in the city."
Kevin Delany '92, head of skating and skills development for the Blackhawks, remembers playing in special events at Lake Forest College, but nothing like what Saturday's game will be for the Foresters.
"When I was a sophomore we played in The Forester Classic with Bowdoin, Williams, and a college from Canada," commented Delaney. "One of my most memorable games at Lake Forest was when we would head to Notre Dame to play in what back then was the Joyce Center Ice Rink."
Delaney remembers the rink situated inside a field house and while there would be a hockey game playing, there was also a volleyball game going at the same time.
After the elimination of Division I hockey at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the only other NCAA team remaining in Illinois was Lake Forest College. Aurora University joined Lake Forest in NCAA play in 2014.
Shawn and Troy Nelson's father, Jeff, was a part of the University of Illinois-Chicago hockey program from 1984-1988. He produced 194 points on 83 goals and 111 assists in 156 games for the Flames.
For kids in Illinois looking to pursue the Division III level in Illinois, Shawn Nelson believes that Lake Forest is a no brainer.
"We are one of few teams in our conference with a rink on campus," Nelson said. "We play in one of the most competitive conferences at the Division III level. We've also had success sending guys into the pro ranks."
Lake Forest had three players from last year's team play on professional teams after the Foresters' season. Mark Esshaki and Jack Lewis had stints with the Norfolk Admirals in the ECHL and Travis Hill played for the Knoxville Ice Bears in the SPHL. Lewis is currently playing for Gap in the Magnus league, the top professional league in France. Esshaki is with the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the SPHL.
Despite only two sponsored NCAA programs in Illinois, there is certainly no shortage of hockey talent coming out of the state, especially in the Chicago area with AAA programs such as the Chicago Mission, Team Illinois, Chicago Young Americans, and Chicago Fury.
The game of hockey continues to rise, not just in the Chicago, but also in the state of Illinois as a whole. Part of that growth can be attributed to the Blackhawks.
"The emergence of hockey in this state has grown massively since the Blackhawks recent success," Schmaltz said. Schmaltz goes on to say that "the following of the team is second to none. I also think that many young players in the area are becoming more involved with hockey due to the large fan base."
When it comes to the discussion of hosting collegiate hockey at Johnny's, both Delaney and Schmaltz view it as a great opportunity for both Lake Forest College and Aurora University, the city, and the state.
"Hosting collegiate hockey games is something that is missing in the city," Delaney said. "Parents and youths love going to collegiate hockey games as it is not only fun to watch, but can also be viewed as more attainable for kids that want to continue their education rather than pursuing the major junior route."
Schmaltz, who spent two seasons with the University of North Dakota, had a prolific career. There he scored 16 goals, added 56 assists, and won a national championship in 2016. He was thrilled to have the Frozen Four a year later at his now home arena, the United Center.
"Having the Frozen Four at the United Center was a huge deal in that it exposed youths to collegiate hockey," Schmaltz said. "It showed young athletes that there are different options to take instead of major junior."
Several members of the Forester men's hockey team have never visited Johnny's, let alone competed there.
"It is a very different venue from the Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse (Foresters' home ice rink on campus)," Delaney recalled. "They will be in front of a new crowd and playing in the city alone should be an exciting experience for the players. The stands at Johnny's are on the second level that give fans the ability to look down on the ice. There is not a bad seat in the house. It should be local enough to get a regular fan base, but also people that are from the city who love hockey."
by Cam McGuire '19