As long as Brady Skjei can remember, he wanted to be a Minnesota Gopher. His grandfather Stan Skjei and relative Brett Sadek both played football at the University of Minnesota and like many other players born in the self-proclaimed State of Hockey, Skjei went to many games at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis hoping to one day be on the other side of the Plexiglas representing the school as a student-athlete.
“It’s awesome, actually,” the sophomore defenseman said with a wide smile on his face when asked what it’s like to don the maroon and gold. “As a kid, I was on the glass asking for pucks and now I’m the one that’s on the ice, so I try and give a puck to all these young kids every once in a while and know that their dream is probably to play here one day. It’s unbelievable.”
Contrast that experience with that of JT Compher, a freshman forward at the University of Michigan who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, IL.
“There’s no college team in Illinois, obviously, so growing up, Michigan was one of my top schools,” Compher said. “When I went and visited, I loved the campus and wanted to go play for Coach Berenson and continue the tradition that Michigan hockey has.”
On his visit, Compher had to travel 265 miles (four hours by car) in order to get to Ann Arbor. Northwestern University, on the other hand, is located in nearby Evanston, IL, a 25-minute drive down I-94. It is literally on his way to the University of Michigan, just, you know, a little bit of a shorter drive. Compher may very well throw pucks over the Plexiglas to young fans during warm-ups, but it is more likely that they are from Detroit, Dearborn, or Dexter than they are to be from Chicago, Evanston, or Northbrook.
While Compher may have committed to the University of Michigan, the de facto school of choice for Chicago-born hockey players appears to be archrival Notre Dame. Instead of continuing on I-94 when heading east to go to college, Bartlett native Vince Hinostroza split off on I-90 near Gary, Ind. and followed it to South Bend.
“It’s a really big deal,” Hinostroza said of being a Chicago guy at Notre Dame. “It’s only about two hours away from home, so my immediate family and a lot of my grandparents and uncles are at all my games, so it’s really nice.”
While Notre Dame attracts student-athletes from around the country, Hinostroza walked into a locker full of Chicago guys at the palatial Compton Family Ice Arena.
“It’s really cool walking into the locker room the first day knowing half the team because they’re all from Chicago,” said the freshman center. “It’s pretty cool being on the same team as some of the older guys I grew up idolizing. T.J. Tynan, Robbie Russo, guys like that that I grew up with in the same organization — the Chicago Mission — watching them play, it was awesome to be on the same team as them.”
Hinostroza is one of eight Illinois-born players on the Fighting Irish roster — that’s more than the players from Minnesota (three) and Michigan (four), combined. To put that in perspective, according to QuantHockey.com, there are currently 36 active NHL players from Minnesota, 37 from Michigan, and eight total from Illinois.
While Minnesota and Michigan are NHL feeders in the Midwest, Chicago is a growing hub and Notre Dame has cornered the market on hockey players from Illinois. Therefore, it should come as no surprise if the pro ranks become more populated by Illinois-born, Notre Dame-bred hockey players in the near future as Tynan (Columbus), Russo (Islanders), and Hinostroza (Chicago) are all NHL Draft picks.
This phenomenon makes sense from a broader perspective. The Universities of Minnesota and Michigan tend to put local players on their teams. The University of Wisconsin hockey team is a mix of primarily Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois native skaters and provides a larger public school option only two-and-a-half hours north of Chicago, but like Michigan the Badgers are a Big 10 rival of both the University of Illinois and Northwestern. If a player grew up with family that played sports at either school, like Skjei’s did at the University of Minnesota, he may be less inclined to dress in rival colors.
Of course, players will travel as far north as Bemidji, MN and as far south as Huntsville, AL in order to play NCAA Division I hockey, but if Northwestern and Illinois started programs, it would give the best local skaters a local option. This is a desire of many athletes, but especially hockey players who also typically travel far and wide in order to play junior hockey in preparation for Division I and have a desire to spend some time near friends and family after spending two or more years with billet families.
As the game of hockey continues to expand across the United States, there is going to be more of a demand for Division I programs, especially at Big 10 schools. It is no longer just kids from Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts that choose to lace up the skates instead of cleats after school, as there are currently seven active NHL players from California, for example, and Sports Illustrated recently had a feature on how the Golden State has embraced a game typically reserved for people born in cold-weather areas.
On a large scale, as more schools go the way of Penn State and add a hockey program with organic rivalries right off the bat, the more the sport should grow. On a small scale, it allows players to stay closer to home where they can play in front of friends and family and cultivate school pride in their community. After all, the experience of throwing a puck over the wall to a young player, knowing you may be inspiring them to play the game one day is a pretty unbelievable experience.
Just ask Brady Skjei about that.
Tom Schreier writes about the Twins, Wild, and Wolves for Yahoo Contributor Network. He previously covered Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and can be heard on 105 The Ticket in the Twin Cities. Follow him on Twitter via @tschreier3.