After some disappointing seasons, the Oak Park-River Forest Hockey Club has made a commitment to a new direction this year and the Huskies will look to improve their standings in the Metro West Conference. The club, with its varsity team finishing 8-13-1 in the regular season and 2-1-1 in the Metro West playoffs last year, is clearly in rebuilding mode and several changes have been made, starting with the unanimous hiring of Cary Shinsako as director of hockey.
Dennis Grayson, president of the board that elected Shinsako, stated very plainly the board's reasons for the new addition. "He knows these kids; he's an excellent trainer and he knows hockey very well."
Shinsako knows these players because for the past 10 years he has been developing the area's feeder system of youth hockey. The system is designed to bring young kids into competitive hockey sooner and develop them faster. The players should then be ready to compete at a higher level once they reach high school.
Being a local coach, Shinsako already has the advantage of being familiar with the competitiveness of the Metro West Conference, and as Grayson said, "he'll come in with an agenda."
When asked what his priorities were this season, Shinsako replied, "Reduce the number of shots [against], play better defense and we're going to reduce the penalty minutesâ€"right from the get go."
At the top of the agenda, Shinsako added, was the recent hiring of varsity coach Rick Meegan and junior varsity head coach Roman Glaser, effectively rebuilding the organization from the top down. Both coaches have years of experience in both the Metro West Conference and with the feeder system. They too know these kids very well and as Shinsako said, "There's a lot of continuity there. They [the players] know what we expect out of them."
And what's expected is a high level of commitment. This season's varsity team is young but does not lack talent. The general feeling is that they need to get up to speed with the rest of the conference.
Shinsako said it all begins with fundamentals. "We're going to take it to another level. If you can't skate, you can't play."
The club is already gearing up for the upcoming season to start in early October by implementing dry land training, which consists of plenty of running, conditioning exercises and lots of hard work. Glaser, a veteran hockey presence and former player with the Czech Republic national team, is also the Huskies' power skating and conditioning coach.
"Roman is tough," said Meegan of Glaser's conditioning regiment. "They are very demanding over there. They don't even see pucks until nine or 10 [years old.] They skate. If these kids can buy into that â€¦ they will see the process of it. Once they see that they are getting better because of it, they'll push a little harder."
It may not always be fun, but as Meegan added, "There's fun and there's trying to be No. 1 in the Metro West."
During dry land training, which lasts throughout the month of August, some 7th and 8th graders will be joining junior varsity and varsity players to work on conditioning, a function of the feeder system that Shinsako helped build.
Meegan will also help with the training. Hired in the spring he had been coaching Fenwick for the past several years and previous to that was a coach in Oak Park. Because the Fenwick-OPRF rivalry is stronger than ever, Shinsako revealed his new varsity head coach "was never a Fenwick guy. He's always been Oak Park first."
When asked if he thought coaching at Fenwick, one of the best teams in the state, gave him an edge in competing, Meegan replied, "Very much so."
Meegan said he believes in teamwork.
"There's nobody that I'm going to put on a pedestal above anybody else," he said. "I want everybody to know that they're part of the team. You're not going to get anywhere if you're not going together somewhere."
Teamwork and training are important at the high school level. Everything must come together quickly and the revolving door of freshmen and new graduates makes team chemistry vital, said Meegan. Keeping high school kids focused is no easy task either.
The board and fans hope that the combined expertise of Shinsako, Meegan and Glaser will turn things around.
"If we're not in shape on the ice and off the ice, we can't play that third period with the same intensity as the first," said Grayson.
As always, expectations are high and the new focus at the OPRF Hockey Club may set that bar even higher. And, as always, Fenwick looks to be in position to have another dominant season, both with its two varsity teams. But to the Huskies, that's not an issue. When asked about the annual powerhouse, Shinsako said his focus is clear.
"Hopefully we see them at State," he said. "They're not my concern. My concern is Metro West."
The last time the Huskies won a State championship was in 1975.