As much as Oak Park resident Emerson Molas enjoys sleepovers, they still cannot compare to playing ice hockey.

“I pretty much like everything about it – the shooting, the passing, the skating,” said Molas, 11. “It’s just a good sport in general.”

After needing to leave a sleepover, Molas concluded this past hockey season with a dream opportunity – competing for the Midwest Select team at the Worlds Select Invitational for players born in 2004 May 3-7 in Bolzano, Italy.

Among 18 teams, Midwest Select reached the quarterfinals of the single-elimination playoffs as the No. 10 seed after going 2-3 in preliminary action. Bolzano is located in northern Italy near the Austrian border in the Alps Mountains.

“The whole experience was a great time. I wish I could do it over and over again,” Molas said. “I liked the hockey the best because that’s my favorite thing to do. The best thing outside of the hockey was to meet the other players.”

Molas is an incoming sixth grader at Julian Middle School who attended Beye Elementary School. The forward is entering his second Pee Wee traveling season for Team Illinois after leading his team in scoring last season. From 2010-12, he played for the Oak Park Huskies (now Ice Bears).

Molas was among four Team Illinois players on Midwest Select’s 17-player roster from 10 Midwestern states and part of Ontario, Canada. He scored in the first preliminary game, an 8-3 victory over the Swiss Selects.

 “It was a great experience. There was a cool ice rink and a lot of cool people there,” Molas said. “We feel we played decently. We felt like we could have done better but there were some pretty good teams there.”

Molas initially wasn’t going to attend the Dec. 31 tryout and his night before began at a friend’s sleepover. He reconsidered, but the tryout was in Detroit, his first tryout out-of-state, and early in the morning.

By the time Molas arrived, it was 1 a.m.

“The tryout was a whole different experience in itself,” Molas said.

Roughly 70 candidates were divided into four teams and scouted through their scrimmages. When Molas eventually made the team, his parents, Eric and Andrea, joined him in Italy.

The U.S. Selects program fielded three more teams in Italy, two representing the East Coast region.

“We decided it’s just a good experience to do the tryout and see the level of competition,” Eric Molas said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him to see that part of the world. (But) there’s a substantial cost for going. We decided to make it a family vacation.”

What was even better was scoring against the Swiss Selects.

Playing right wing, Molas had his initial shot stopped, but Midwest Select still controlled of the puck. Molas was free in the slot for a pass from the point, and this time he scored 43 seconds into the second period for a 3-1 lead.

“It was pretty cool to score in a different country,” Molas said. “It was the feeling of scoring a goal, the kind of feeling in itself that I can’t really explain, but just that feeling times 10.”

Mola also was able to wear uniform number 88, the same as idol Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. For Team Illinois, Molas could not select a number higher than 80 and wore 68 for longtime National Hockey League scoring standout Jaromir Jagr.

“I like Patrick Kane because he’s got very good moves and he just gets around players with his stick-handling,” Molas said. “My ultimate dream is to make it to the NHL but the first goal is just to have a great (upcoming) season.”

Midwest Select lost 4-1 in the quarterfinals to No. 2 Draftday Hockey, which lost in the championship to No. 4 Pro Hockey 6-3.

Midwest Select won its playoff opener 4-3 over the No. 7 Slovakia Selects. In the preliminaries, Midwest Select also beat the Latvia Selects 5-1 and lost to the Slovakia Selects 5-0, East Coast Select O Team 3-0 and the Czech Selects 3-2.

Other countries represented included Canada, Finland, Italy, Russia and Sweden.

“At the beginning (of the tournament), there was this big feast,” Molas said. “There were a couple of tables and you got to meet the other players. We became good friends with the Finland kids. We met everyone, the Russians, Italians and some of the teams from North America, everywhere.”

Games consisted of two 20-minute periods rather than the three 17-minute periods Molas usually plays with Team Illinois.

Midwest Select did not practice until arriving in Italy but jelled quickly under head coach Mike Bush, who coaches in Detroit. Molas played against about half of his new teammates during the traveling season.

“I learned how to cope with a coach I didn’t really know. And I became a better player because of it,” Molas said. “When they placed us in the hotel, they had the forwards in the same rooms. I think that’s how we bonded.”

The team enjoyed sightseeing as well. Three times the players encountered informal celebrations of young Italians just entering the military.

While the temperature was 75 degrees in the valley, the players were taken into the mountains and encountered a snowstorm.

“We took a break near the top. It was like an enormous sled hill and we rolled rocks and watched them roll into bigger and bigger snowballs,” Molas said. “Being with snow and just a regular rainy day at the bottom was pretty cool.”

Bolzano officially became part of Italy in 1919 and was settled by a large German-speaking population that remains to this day. That history contributed to a great array of culture and food combinations.

“(Wiener Schnitzel) was my favorite food, but the gelato there was awesome. I have a bit of a sweet tooth,” Molas said.

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