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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007 07:33 pm

On the edge

It's make or break time for Springfield's hungry Jr. Blues


It’s early in the game when the scoreboard changes: Southern Minnesota Express, 2; Springfield Jr. Blues, 0.

Hundreds of fans, decked out in yellow, blue, and white, rally behind their team. “Let’s go, Blues, let’s go, Blues,” they chant, stomping on the bleachers and ringing yellow keynote-emblazoned cowbells. The Jr. Blues speed across the ice, shoving their opponents into the boards, maneuvering to control the puck. One line retreats, panting and sweaty, and another advances. Only 2:16 remains in the second period when the Blues spot an opening. The puck soars past the Minnesota goalie, finds the back of the net. Sirens blare, a foghorn sounds, and the players circle up and embrace, triumphant, holding their sticks high.

They’ve sent a message: They may end up losing, but they won’t go down without a fight.

For those who don’t play the game, Springfield may seem like an unlikely hub for future pro and college hockey stars.

But the guys who leave home at a young age to follow their dreams in the capital city insist that the key to success is playing with the Jr. Blues — the oldest of 17 teams in the North American Hockey League and a proven steppingstone to Division I scholarships. Even better, this year the team is actually good. Thanks to coaching and management changes, the new season’s players are in better shape and in better spirits, looking to expand on their winning record.

The Jr. Blues’ roster further underscores the team’s weight in the hockey community — of the 25 listed players, none is from Springfield and just five hail from Illinois. Others come from California, New Jersey, Colorado, and even as far away as Slovenia to don the blue-and-white jerseys and fight for a chance to make it big. Talking with three of the team’s veteran players, it’s clear that a common thread ties them all together: They’re young, 18 to 20 years old; they’re skilled, the best amateur players in the country; they’re determined — the phrase “eat, sleep, and breathe hockey” doesn’t even begin to describe it; and maybe they’re even just plain crazy; fractured vertebrae and broken collarbones don’t mean a thing in this crowd.

Jon Gaffney, a 19-year-old Brooklyn native and one of the team’s forwards, was born to play. He was barely walking before he was skating, and by the time he was 6 his father was driving him to New Jersey, an hour away, five days a week to play in a youth league.

Gaffney watched his older brother leave home at 16 to continue his hockey career in such places as Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota, and he knew that he would have to do the same. He was playing Junior B hockey with the New Jersey Rockets when he got his chance. Gaffney moved up to the Jr. Blues, a Junior A hockey team and one of the straightest chutes
to college and professional hockey. Since coming to Springfield in 1993, the team has sent more than 100 players to Division I colleges on scholarships.

Others, such as 19-year-old defenseman Tim Niedzielak, chose Springfield because they’re impressed with the Jr. Blues’ reputation: It’s known for attracting the nation’s best players and living up to its team-to-beat status.

Niedzielak got a later start in hockey than most players, but it wasn’t long before his coaches had pegged him as one of the best skaters on the team. He was born in Chicago, the son of Polish immigrants, and grew up listening to his father reminisce about pond hockey. He skated for the first time when he was 8 and signed up to play in a local park district’s league when he was 11.

Niedzielak decided to make the step up to the Jr. Blues while playing with a city club hockey team. He says a phone call from then-head coach Nick Pollos, offering him a spot on the team, was all he needed to head south.

Phil Cook, the team’s 19-year old goalie, was offered a spot with the Jr. Blues in the same year and couldn’t pass up the long-awaited opportunity, especially since it was a little closer to home. Like Niedzielak, Cook grew up in Chicago. He was pushing the puck around his back yard when he was 4 years old. His father tended goal in recreational men’s leagues around the city, and by the time he was 6 Cook had followed suit. He was a junior in high school when he left home to play hockey for a team in Colorado.

“The first year was rough, moving across the country and going to high school there,” Cook says, “but it’s something a hockey player has to do in order to make it to the next level.”

In junior hockey, it’s all about making it to the next level — even if it means sacrificing family, free time, or even sleep. During the eight months that they’re with the team, the Jr. Blues live hockey. Just the length of their season alone is enough to send most athletes packing. In their regular season, from September to March, the Jr. Blues compete in 58 games. That’s not even counting the 20-or-so games they’ll play if they make it through April playoffs.

And let’s not forget about injuries. In a full-contact sport where body checks are allowed and hooking, elbowing, charging, and roughing penalties abound, almost everyone has suffered a break, pull, or dislocation once or twice during his career. But the players don’t whine about it — they’ll play bandaged, they’ll play broken, because, as they say, it hurts more to watch from the sidelines.

“I broke my nose last year, pretty much shattered it, actually,” Gaffney says. “When I was board-checking, attacking a defenseman, he shot the puck at the zone, and it hit me in the nose. I separated my shoulder last year, pulled my groin a lot, and had a couple of concussions.”

Gaffney also mentions that he once fractured a vertebra in his neck and broke a growth plate in his shoulder. Instead of taking the prescribed three months’ rest, though, he was back on the ice after a week.

“I can’t sit out,” Gaffney says. “It hurts more to sit in the stands watching your team win or lose.”

Goalies wear 50 pounds of extra protective equipment, including massive chest protectors and shin guards, but the puck, often traveling 80 mph, sometimes finds a way in.
With a month left in last year’s season, Cook was defending the net when a slap shot broke his left collarbone. Just a few months later, another slap shot broke his right collarbone. All he could do was invest in extra neck guards.

When they’re in Springfield, the players live with host families — basically anyone who doesn’t mind housing and feeding male teenage athletes. The young men help with day-to-day chores and, just like at home, are expected to do their own laundry and keep their rooms clean. Also, maybe unlike at home, they must follow a team-set curfew: 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends.

The Jr. Blues have on-the-ice practices with their coaches two hours a day and off-the-ice conditioning with the team’s trainer two times a week. Many players lift weights, run, or stretch in their spare time.

When they’re not practicing or playing hockey, the players have other requirements that they must fulfill to get ice time: Every Jr. Blues is required to enroll in at least one course at Lincoln Land Community College or at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and some players take as many as three. Players are also expected to participate in community-service projects such as reading to children at local elementary schools.

Home games are played in the Nelson Center, usually on the weekends; away games are played in exotic locales like Minnesota, Texas, and North Dakota. The players say they get used to it — riding in a bus overnight for 12 hours, eating breakfast, and then napping in the hotel before the team’s pregame meal and game time.

Although it sounds a little hairy, it’s nothing compared to their routines on home game days. After a morning skate or video session with the team, the players are left to themselves to prepare for the upcoming game — and they’ll be the first to tell you that their psych-up rites are a little nutty.

“Everybody’s different,” says Gaffney, “but the goalies are real weird.”

Cook admits that he does follow a few game-day rituals, one of which he started when he first came to Springfield. He went to a local restaurant for lunch, ordered a large grilled chicken Caesar salad, a broccoli-and-Cheddar bowl, and a large frozen mango drink. After the Jr. Blues beat their opponents 8-1, he’s gone back every game day and eaten the same meal.

Gaffney finally confesses one of his own rituals: He never uses the first piece of tape when taping his hockey stick before a game.

“It’s something I always did,” he says. “I rip my tape, take a big strip, put it on the wall, and throw it out after I tape my stick. I never want to tape my stick with the first strip of tape.”

The players say they start when they’re young, after hearing about rituals and superstitions from other players or hearing pros talk about them on television — and pretty soon they develop their own and can’t not follow them.

“You start overthinking things,” says Niedzielak. “‘Well, I didn’t do this; that’s why I played like that.’ So if you just stick to it you don’t have to think about it later.”

Niedzielak speaks from experience — he’s one of the most superstitious of the bunch. He rents a movie from the video store, watches it, and then plays two games of NHL 07 on Xbox. During his drive to the Nelson Center, he pops in his Yung Joc CD and takes a specific route designated only for game days. He laughs when he explains that he has to drive this way to play well.

When Niedzielak gets to the rink, he joins the ranks of the other guys who wear the same shorts and shirt to warm up for every game and those who listen to their favorite music, such as Metallica or Tupac, on their iPods to get pumped for the game. But then his final ritual veers from the norm: He listens to music until there is exactly 21 minutes left on the clock before faceoff. Fans will know that the time is significant — it’s the number he wears on his jersey.

The Jr. Blues’ players find themselves in a strange situation this season. They’re actually winning. Seeing as how critics thought that the team was washed up after years of mismanagement and poor coaching, it’s a major accomplishment.

Just six months ago, it looked as if the Jr. Blues would follow the Triple A Cardinals and the Stallions right out of Springfield. The players had lost 13 of their last 17 games and were struggling to attract fans to the Nelson Center. After years of borrowing money, the team had amassed more than $200,000 in debt and had no fundraising plans in place.

Bob Gordon, a local financial planner, was well known in Springfield’s hockey community as a player and a coach, and when he received a plea to help the team turn things around, he couldn’t pass it up. He brought in business partner and fellow hockey coach Rik Stone for backup, and the pair got 18 business leaders and hockey enthusiasts to join the team’s first board of governors (up until that point, the team had been run by the owner, the owner’s wife, and the coach). The board erased the team’s debt in 120 days and fired the head coach with eight games left.

Although the move was largely unpopular with Jr. Blues fans, it seemed to do the trick. The team won its last four home games straight, and spectator numbers climbed from between 400 and 500 in the stands to nearly 1,800. The Jr. Blues responded to their new coach — former assistant coach Chris Wyler — and started beating teams that had gone virtually undefeated all season, including the U.S. national team. They ended the season with a 26-31 record.

Wyler found a new assistant in Eric Ballard, a longtime friend and then-head coach of a youth team in Colorado. The two coached head to head 10 years ago in two Junior B national championships, with Ballard taking home the gold one year and Wyler taking home the gold the next. They say that, between the two of them, they can turn the Jr. Blues’ luck around.

“As a coach, everywhere I’ve been, I’ve never had a losing season,” Ballard says. “I bring something to the table. I’m a competitor. “Chris, when he’s running his own program, he’s won every year. We have a chemistry between the two of us, and we have an idea of what it takes to win.”

They started by changing the way the Jr. Blues play the game. They’ve recruited players who Wyler calls “the difference-makers” and worked to control plays through speed and skill rather than fighting. They’re teaching their players to use creativity to finesse the puck into the goal.
It’s still early, but, Wyler says, in his six years as a coach with the Jr. Blues, this is the best situation the team has been in on and off the ice.

“It’s a long, grueling season,” he says. “It has peaks and valleys. You just hope that during the course of the season that you can have more peaks and less valleys.”

The veterans have welcomed the change. Last year, many didn’t want to come to the rink. They weren’t having fun. But that’s all in the past. Now they’re excited to practice every day, to play with a team of guys whose skill and determination match their own and to work with coaches who know how to win.

They all play their own roles: Gaffney likes to be the noisemaker on the ice, the one who fights if it’s the only way to spark the team. Niedzielak is a team leader, driven with a passion to perform that never lets him miss practice or a workout. Cook arguably has the toughest position, because in high-pressure situations he keeps his team in the game.

“A goalie has to have a stiff upper lip,” he says. “He has to have a short memory if he lets in a goal, and keep even emotions. He has to be the backbone of his team and have their backs.”

The future is uncertain for these veteran players and for the rest of their team. They can only hope that a college or professional scout notices their talent and that their time in Springfield will come to a favorable end.

Niedzielak eventually wants to be a surgeon; Cook wants to work in sports management. In true hockey-player fashion, Gaffney says that he just wants to play.

“I tell my coaches: I want to play hockey as long as I can; I want to see how long I can play hockey,” Gaffney says. “Whatever team talks to me, whatever college, it don’t really matter.”

But for now they’re happy where they are. Just being able to get up every day and play the game is more than enough for them.

“When you go to the rink, you lose thought about everything outside of the rink,” Niedzielak says. “It all disappears when you walk through the doors. It’s just you and hockey for the next three hours.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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