Credit: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

When it comes to varsity sports, Chicago is mainly known for its rich history in basketball. The city has produced many talented and legendary players over the last 50 years. It’s a sport that will continue to be deeply rooted in the hearts of Chicagoans. But hockey also draws a respectable number of players in Chicagoland. Statewide, there are currently more than 150 high school hockey teams. 

In 1963, the Chicago Catholic Hockey League (CCHL) was founded as the state’s first high school league, and it now includes a variety of Catholic schools in the city and suburbs. In 1975, the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI) was established, and it includes multiple suburban schools. 

While several Chicago Public Schools once had their own hockey programs, most public school students now skate with hockey clubs that draw players from multiple schools. The Chicago Romans Hockey Club (formerly the Latin Romans) draws players from public and private schools, such as Jones College Prep, Whitney Young Magnet School, Lincoln Park, St. Ignatius, the University of Chicago Lab School, and the Latin School.

The girls’ team plays in the Metro League, and the boys’ team plays in the Illinois High School Hockey League’s North Central division. The Romans compete with similarly structured “aggregate” teams such as the Chicago North, which draws players from Lane Tech, DePaul Prep, Lakeview, Amundsen, Northside Prep, Taft, and Von Steuben.  

Peter de Jong, the president of the Chicago Romans, says the lack of wider interest at the high school level is mainly a problem of facilities distribution. The Romans practice at two locations: Johnny’s Ice House at Western and Madison and the Chicago Blackhawks Community Training Facility at Damen and Jackson.

“There is currently a shortage of ice rink space in the city of Chicago compared to the northern suburbs, where there are many more rink facilities,” said de Jong. “More investment needs to be done in Illinois to encourage players of all socio-economic spectrums to learn to play hockey.” 

Interest in hockey, and the lack thereof, isn’t unique to Chicago high schools. Lou Morici, 30, began skating when he was three years old and joined the Skokie Flyers hockey program two years later. He went on to play for Loyola Academy, a private Jesuit college prep school in Wilmette, and led the team to a state championship final, which the Loyola Academy Ramblers lost to St. Rita.

“We were one of the top teams that year,” Morici said. “As far as exposure goes, if you were mentioning anything about Illinois high school hockey, we were mentioned just because we were one of the top teams along with New Trier. I’m not going to sit here and say we were making headline news in the sports pages or anything. If the topic of Illinois high school hockey was mentioned, then Loyola was.” 

Despite the exposure, Morici says interest in hockey at Loyola Academy didn’t reach a fever pitch.

“I guess there’s certain obstacles to understanding,” he said. “Football is very much embedded at a school like Loyola just like a lot of other schools. Where hockey is a different location, there’s no personal rink. We [played] at Heartland, but that’s not on campus like the football field was. So it is almost a bit removed.” 

Hockey is an expensive sport, too. High school and collegiate players pay yearly hockey fees to cover expenses for uniforms, road trips, hotels, ice time, and sometimes buy their equipment. When Morici played for the Loyola Ramblers, players paid more than $5,000 a year to play. 

“The majority of the burden falls on the shoulders of the parents,” Morici said. “I’m lucky enough to have parents that were able to support me and pay for that. Not everyone is in a position where their folks are able to let them play hockey and to go to school.” 

Nick Fabbrini, 37, played for the Fenwick Academy Friars in Oak Park before graduating in 2004. He took his talents to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign the following fall, where he competed in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division 1 level, winning a national championship in his final season. He had a stint as an associate coach for the team a season later and was the head coach from 2012 to 2022. 

Fabbrini also dabbled in assistant coaching for his high school alma mater before returning to Fenwick last May as the head coach for the boys’ varsity team. The Friars host their home games at Oak Park’s Paul Hruby Ice Arena. 

“I think that one of the things that can really help high school hockey are schools and programs taking advantage of social media,” said Fabbrini. “As you know, that’s a huge deal in today’s world.” He said hockey teams could tap into their school’s social media to build followings.

“Some schools do a really good job of promoting and supporting their hockey teams,” Fabbrini said. “And other ones kind of keep them at arm’s length. It’s different from a Minnesota type of situation where high school hockey is everything. I think there’s still a lot of not knowing and understanding what the hockey community is and what it’s about.” 

The Friars are working toward improving their skills and chemistry as a unit, and the team’s social media following is gradually growing. The team has over 500 Twitter and 700 Instagram followers. The program uses social media to inform fans and give updates on upcoming games. 

“I think if you look at some of the ACHA Instagram and Twitter accounts, a lot of them have more followers than NCAA teams,” Fabbrini added. “And part of that I think is maybe not being constrained by so many NCAA regulations that some NCAA accounts might have to deal with.”   

But with social media or without it, every season young players will still find their way to the ice to compete for the love of this sport.