In an effort to have his players bond as much as possible, Chicago Hawks 14U girls hockey coach Ryan Sullivan scheduled his team for an early-season road trip to a tournament in Minnesota.
Sullivan wasn’t concerned with how his team fared.
“I just wanted to force us to get somewhere in a hotel together where a lot of these new faces had to meet each other, and they hit it off right away — it was awesome,” Sullivan said.
“We ended up losing that tournament in a 13-player shootout in the championship, so it was fun and it was competitive. But most importantly we were in a hotel together for a couple days and the team bonded really quickly. From there on, all of our off-ice workouts were focused on our goals and working together to accomplish them and pushing each other. It was just a great group.”
That journey to Minnesota had a lasting impact on the players, even six months later as the team entered the postseason.
“It was an experience that I’ll never forget,” Hawks forward Madi Gaines said. “It was so fun to just be able to get closer with all the girls and I think being able to get close to them really helped us grow as a team and that helped us get more motivated before every game. If we were down, we’d be able to pick each other up and I think it just helped us in the long run to be able to have those relationships.”
The mission for the Hawks program — which skates out of Darien, a Chicago suburb — is simple: develop the players and allow them to have fun.
During the past season, the Hawks players did many meaningful and memorable things off the ice. When Sullivan took over the Hawks’ program as the girls hockey director, one of his goals was to build more of a community-based feel.
“That meant doing charitable things together, that meant going to each other’s games and supporting each other,” Sullivan said. “A lot of those ideas of things we tried this year were really an effort, maybe in disguise, to try to like build this community sense among the girls program. I think it worked.”
Some of the fun activities the girls players partook in this season included Girls Hockey Weekend, raising over $5,000 for Hockey Fights Cancer, launching a Big Sister mentorship program and meeting five U.S. Olympic women’s hockey players at a Chicago Blackhawks game.
The mentorship program is an important venture for Sullivan.
“It was really an effort to try to continue to develop that relationship between the older girls in our program and the younger girls,” Sullivan said. “There will be things that I change next year, but I would say for sure mission accomplished as far as creating that connection between the two.”
Chicago Hawks forward Madi Gaines skates up the ice during a game against Seattle Sno-King at the 2022 Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier II 14U 2A National Championship.
At every age level of the Hawks program, girls supported one another by attending each other’s games.
“I think doing those extra things just made hockey so much more fun,” Gaines said. “When we got to see the women’s [Olympic] players, it motivated us all in a different way that if we put the work in, we can be there one day just like them. Doing all those fun things built those relationships we’ll have even if we’re not on the same team or wherever we’re at next year, we’ll still have those.”
For all the fun the Hawks players had off the ice this season, they enjoyed so much success on it.
The Hawks set four main goals at the beginning of the season: win a regular-season tournament (they won three); capture the Presidents’ Cup, which is awarded to the team with the best record in the Northern Illinois Hockey League (they did that); win the NIHL playoff championship (they did that); win the state championship (they did that).
“I felt confident that we had a chance to accomplish all of them, but to actually do it was kind of special,” Sullivan said.
The Hawks took a major jump from the program’s first season to the second.
“I feel like from the beginning all of us were really motivated and I feel like there was an instant click with all of us girls,” Gaines said. “We all saw the end goal and we really wanted to get there. We worked hard this year for sure, and I feel like we had a lot more ice time and we all just worked really hard.”
The Hawks had a high-powered offense, scoring 208 goals at 3.59 per game. The defense was outstanding as well, allowing 1.67 goals per game and notching 15 shutouts.
“This team just had so many talented players and it was just so fun to play with all of them,” said Gaines, who was the team’s leading goal scorer. “When we would get the first goal, we were unstoppable. Everyone would get fired up and we kept going. Our defense was amazing, outstanding and our forwards had so many talented players.”
The Hawks finished the season with the program’s first trip to the Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier II 14U National Championships.
Sullivan and Gaines believe the team’s success this season will thrust the program in the right direction where appearances at Nationals will become expected on an annual basis.
“I hope that since we made it so far that it brought some more recognition to our club and it will draw in a lot more girls and just build the club,” Gaines said. “It will make it even stronger so that every level, 12U, 14U, 16U, will be strong and have that chance a lot more to be able to go to Nationals.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.