Blackhawks’ success boosts local interest in youth hockey

CRYSTAL LAKE – While watching Chicago Blackhawks games, 9-year-old Gavin Reining studies goalie Corey Crawford’s every move.

Reining, a goalie on the Squirt AA Yellowjackets from Crystal Lake, uses what he learns from his favorite Blackhawks player to help lead his team, which recently won a May 19 tournament.

“[The Blackhawks] have given me a lot of confidence in myself to win championships and playoff games,” Reining said. “I had two shutouts in that tournament.”

The success of a local professional sports team typically affects an entire city, from restaurant sales to tourism to an increased sense of community.

In the case of the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, who are up 2-1 in the Western Conference Finals and face the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night in Game 4 of the best-of-seven series, the effects of the team’s success are even reaching youth hockey in McHenry County.

“It’s definitely good for the game in this area when your hometown team is doing as well as they’re doing,” said Dean Britt, head coach of the Yellowjackets. “Enrollment here at this club has gone up with the success of the Blackhawks.”

The Yellowjackets, who are practicing and competing in tournaments during the spring season, are keeping a close eye on the Blackhawks as Chicago continues its run through the playoffs. The group of 8- to 10-year-olds looks to the professional team for motivation during its own games.

The Yellowjackets, who play home games at the Crystal Ice House in Crystal Lake, always have the Blackhawks game on the lobby TV, and players are constantly checking the score in between practices, Britt said.

Jaidyn Britt, the coach’s daughter and only girl on the team, said she’s been impressed by the Blackhawks’ play all season.

“It’s actually pretty cool that they’re doing it and they step up and are doing their best,” the 8-year-old said.

Britt said she’s loves everything about hockey and isn’t intimidated by playing with the boys.

“I think I’m brave playing with all the boys,” she said. “They kind of treat me how they treat the boys.”

Kenny Milarski, 10, is the assist man on the team. He loves passing and said he likes watching the Blackhawks and tries to emulate their moves during his games.

“I like when [Jonathan] Toews comes up the boards and puts one hand on his stick and the defense thinks he’s going to the boards and he cuts to the middle,” he said.

Nine-year-old Bennett Dufault was one of several Yellowjackets who got a chance to play on the ice during the intermission of a Blackhawks game last season at the United Center.

“It felt like I was in professional hockey,” he said. “I actually scored a goal on the ice. It felt really good.”

As the Yellowjackets and other Blackhawks fans watch Thursday’s game in Los Angeles, many will remember that this season was close to never happening at all. A lingering lockout forced the NHL to nearly cancel the entire season, which would have been disastrous for youth hockey in McHenry County, said Kenny McCudden, longtime youth hockey coach and Chicago Wolves skill development coach.

“During the lockout, kids were not wearing Blackhawks jerseys,” said McCudden, who serves as the skills coach for many area youth teams, including the Yellowjackets. “But in January, the jerseys were back out and the energy never stopped. All the 88s and 19s and 10s were instantly on the backs of those kids.”

Most of the Yellowjackets have been skating just as long as they have been walking. The team travels as much as an hour and a half away to compete in tournaments throughout the year. And the players take turn keeping their championship trophy at their house. For the Yellowjackets, hockey isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life.

“[The Blackhawks] are talked about at the rink and there is a culture there,” Coach Britt said. “Families go the game together. I think the success that the Blackhawks are having obviously brings a positive feeling. The kids are proud to wear their logo.”

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