Despite an illustrious championship trophy (Stanley Cup, or if you prefer the French, La Coupe Stanley) and an epic few months of playoff hockey, the National Hockey League is often overlooked by American pro sports consumers who prefer to follow more popular leagues like the NFL, NBA and MLB.
Unfortunately, a similar trend exists at the high school level, especially in Illinois where every sport is competitive.
The Chicago Blackhawks organization has worked strenuously to develop an NHL dynasty in the salary cap era, and their efforts have drawn more fans to hockey in the Windy City.
Like the Blackhawks' run of winning the Stanley Cup three times, Illinois high school hockey has developed a dynasty of its own. Team Illinois has won four of the last five, and back-to-back, championships at the annual America's Showcase tournament.
Louie Gomez, a River Forest resident and 2017 Fenwick High School graduate, played a key role for Team Illinois this spring, which defeated Team Pittsburgh 6-3 in Pittsburgh on April 24.
Team Illinois' title perhaps eased the pain for some of the Blackhawks' fans following their recent postseason debacle — swept 4-0 by the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Coupled with that harsh reality, the Pittsburgh Penguins won a second straight NHL title.
At least Illinois high school hockey got the better of Pittsburgh prepsters on their own ice. Trailing Team Pittsburgh 3-1 early in the second period, Team Illinois reeled off five unanswered goals to repeat as national champions at the prestigious 24-team tournament.
Jacob Rott and Jake Vennetti, a pair of high-scoring forwards from Providence Catholic, had four goals and five assists apiece in the tournament, while Nicholas Feldman from Benet Academy led Team Illinois in scoring goals with five.
Anchoring the defense
Following his outstanding career at Fenwick, Gomez earned a spot on the prestigious Team Illinois showcase roster, which typically boasts players from solid Illinois high school programs like Providence, Benet, New Trier, Loyola, Barrington, St. Viator, Glenbrook North, and the list goes on.
Several OPRF High School players tried out for the team but didn't make the cut. OPRF senior Ben Ostler, one of the best goaltenders in the state, was the lone player from the Huskies who made the Team Illinois roster as a reserve. Ostler practiced with the team and competed in exhibition games prior to the tournament.
The highly selective process of putting the roster together is a testament to how competitive high school hockey is in Illinois.
Gomez secured his spot on the squad due to his mental toughness and hockey skills.
Fenwick hockey head coach Chris Lappin, who recently completed his first year with the Friars, was thrilled to see Gomez on the showcase team.
"No question he deserved to be on Team Illinois," Lappin said. "I can confidently say he was one of the top five defensemen in the state. He's a tough kid and contributed heavily on the showcase team. Illinois always performs nationally so I was excited to see Louie get an opportunity."
Prior to the showcase tournament, Gomez excelled as an assistant captain and as the the blue line anchor for the Friars. He powered Fenwick to the Chicago Catholic League finals and a Sweet 16 showing in the state playoffs.
"We play in the two toughest leagues in the state," Lappin said. "We relied on Louie all season. He's an offensive-minded defenseman, but he grew into a well-rounded two-way player. He was a lockdown defender who could make plays with the puck on his blade."
Gomez has an All-Star personality as well.
"What's great about Louie is that he's a better kid than he is a hockey player," Lappin said. "He always kept the boys light in the locker room with his sense of humor. He is all business on the ice. He had a low-key, humble mindset and it was a privilege to coach a kid who was never late and was always ready when the going got tough."
Gomez says he enjoyed his hockey years at Fenwick.
"Fenwick hockey has given me a chance to play for more than just myself, but rather something larger. Our team really came together as a family and it made my years here special."
Because Gomez was a popular and respected leader among his Fenwick teammates and coaches, assuming a similar role on Team Illinois came naturally.
"My role was to play consistent defense and do everything I can to help out the goalies," he said. "Playing with the guys that I competed against locally was a special experience."
Gomez certainly executed his role effectively at America's Showcase, dishing out five assists and scoring a goal.
He also put up impressive numbers at Fenwick. Through his junior and senior campaigns, Gomez scored close to 40 goals and dished out 30 assists for the Friars.
He is the first Fenwick defenseman to play for the showcase team since Liam Conroy in 2014.
The small number of OPRF and Fenwick hockey players who have been listed on the Illinois Team roster serves as proof that it's an uncommon accomplishment.
Gomez has left his mark at Fenwick both on and off the ice. In fact, he has represented the entire Oak Park-River Forest hockey community at some of high school hockey's biggest events.
His role for the Friars as the focal point of their power play and breakouts translated well during his time with Team Illinois. He repeatedly delivered on a loaded Illinois team that created momentum with their depth and versatility.
Prior to their 6-3 victory over Pittsburgh, Team Illinois notched wins against Missouri, Indiana, New Jersey, Florida and Texas.
Whether it's with travel teams, Fenwick or Team Illinois, Gomez has already established a legacy as a decorated hockey player.
He's not done yet, however, with the game that has given him so much.
He will attend the University of Iowa as a business major, with hopes of becoming an entrepreneur or business consultant. He also plans on continuing his athletic career.
"I want to play club hockey for the Hawkeyes," said Gomez. "I want to keep having fun playing the game I love. Hockey has given me so many friends and memories. I want to make more."
Answer Book 2017
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2017 Answer Book, please click here.
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