Disabato: High school hockey offers unequaled state finals experience032509/ studio
Pat Disabato sports writer southtownstar ( photo by Carol Dorsett)
Updated: March 26, 2012 9:34PM
That’s the only way to describe Friday’s Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois state finals at the United Center.
I will throw a bone to North Side-happy AHAI in this regard: It’s smart enough to have latched on to the coattails of the Blackhawks, whose partnership has made hockey the best state finals experience of any sport (my apologies to the IHSA).
“It’s run pretty amazing,” said St. Rita coach Craig Ferguson, whose Mustangs earned the state championship Friday night by posting a 5-0 win over St. Viator. “We’re treated first class.”
So we’re the fans.
First off, admission is just $5 and parking is free. That’s why attendance was approximately 12,000 strong. Yes, 12,000 for a high school hockey game. With the exception of the 300 level, the majority of the UC was packed.
Having two Catholic League teams was a jackpot for AHAI, which benefited from the monster gate, and consequently for the Hawks, who benefited from a steady flow to the concession stands.
“When you’re talking $8 or $10 for admission, for a kid that gets up there in price a little bit,” Ferguson said. “Five bucks is a deal.”
No, it’s a steal, especially when considering the production value. Attending Friday’s game was no different than going to a Hawks game.
From the scoreboard to the sound system to the puck drop contest between periods to, yes, the vision of the Ice Crew beauties — who, by the way, elicited some of the loudest ovations of the night — spectators were treated to all the excitement of attending a Hawks game.
St. Rita and St. Viator did their part, producing a wonderful showcase for high school hockey. The way St. Rita goalie Marty Napleton performed, turning aside 28 shots, Hawks GM Stan Bowman should consider signing the young man to solve the team’s goaltending woes.
“It was the same production as a Hawks game,” Ferguson said. “The exact same thing.”
Hawks players Andrew Shaw and Nick Leddy took time out of their Friday schedules to take part in the ceremonial puck drop. The Hawks, through a beverage sponsor, provided ThunderStix to fans.
The ice surface, which generally is cleaned before the game and between the second and third periods at high school games, received a face-lift between each period Friday.
From what I’ve been told, Comcast SportsNet, which televised the game live, did a fine job with the broadcast.
“It was unbelievable,” St. Rita forward Stan Sojka said. “It’s a player’s dream to play on the same ice as the pros. We were treated like we were in ‘The Show.’ ”
The end result: Players were provided with a once-in-a-lifetime experience, AHAI was able to sell high school hockey in a first-class atmosphere, and the Hawks gave fans a second-to-none feel of what it’s like to attend one of their games at the UC.
It’s a marriage made in hockey heaven.
“There was a ton of little hockey players in attendance,” Ferguson said. “The Hawks know those are their next generation of season ticket-holders.”
If I’m the IHSA, which doesn’t govern hockey, I’m taking notes.
Why not play the state finals in baseball at Wrigley Field or U.S. Cellular? Or the football state finals at Soldier Field and the basketball state finals at the United Center? The Class 4A hoops state championship between Simeon and Proviso East would have attracted a near-capacity crowd if played at the UC instead of Peoria, which is becoming increasingly seedy.
The IHSA needs to up the ante for its state finals events — even if it means soliciting sponsors to defray costs. The Cubs, Sox, Bears and Bulls should follow the Hawks’ lead and do everything in their power to be a generous partner.
“The Blackhawks even asked us what song we wanted to play when we scored a goal,” said Ferguson, whose team chose the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop.”
We’ll never know what St. Viator chose.