Just suiting up and playing on the ice at United Center is a surreal experience for most high school hockey players.
But, on this night, Jack Raith didn’t let the surroundings — or the bigness of this game — get to him.
He was Sir Real.
He hit it out of the rink. Jack Raith was Babe Ruth with a hockey stick.
The junior forward turned Surreal into Unreal on March 18, when he scored four goals in New Trier Green’s 5-2 victory over Providence Catholic in the AHAI state championship game.
Grape Gretzky! The kid was amazing. The kid was Great.
“He had a game for the ages,” New Trier Green head boys hockey Bob Melton said. “For him to do what he did on a stage like this was … .”
Excessive in a spectacular sort of way.
“I never imagined this,” Raith said. “I never could have dreamed of doing something like this.”
Winning “Player of the Game” honors was one thing. Helping his team win the title — lucky No. 13 for the New Trier Green program and its third in four years — was the better thing for Raith.
“It’s all about the win,” he said.
“And this,” Raith added, “is the best feeling that I’ve ever had in my life. From getting off the bus to right now. Every part of it.”
Raith capped his all-state season with a team-high 38 goals. He also had 34 assists to wind up with 72 points.
“He took his game to another level tonight,” NT Green senior all-state defenseman Stephan Bazianos said. “He won the game for us.”
“I’ve been on his team for the past three years,” added fellow all-state defenseman Dillon Munson, referring to their time spent on junior varsity teams (NT White and NT Blue). “And I’ve never seen him play like that.”
Raith must’ve had a hunch that he would spend most of the night in celebratory — and celebrity — mode, when he shocked the Celtics (56-11-1) with an early icebreaker. Off an assist from teammate Matthew Mulhern, it took him all of 26 seconds to solve all-state goalkeeper Ryan Iaciancio and put his team in front 1-0.
Raith had an immediate response for that early goal. He rushed over to the NT Green student section to celebrate. And separated only by the thick plexiglass, he whooped it up with the school’s wildly enthused fans.
Wash, rinse and rehash. He repeated that same happy refrain several times.
“Just trying to get the crowd into the game,” Raith said.
Goals have a way of electrifying a fan base. The Celtics charged up theirs on a pair of first-period goals by all-stater Jake Vennetti and Gant Orloff.
Panic time? Not really.
“We might’ve taken our foot off the pedal a little,” said Raith. “But we’ve been coming back on teams all year. Even when we were down 2-1, I knew we had it.
“We just needed our defense to pick it up,” said Melton. “I knew we had too much offense to score only one goal.
“But I was pretty happy when we got the momentum back,” the NT Green coach added.
No. 89 was at his coach’s service. United Center’s Zamboni machine was hardly off the ice, when Raith struck for his second goal of the game with 14:38 left in the second period on an assist by Charlie Burton.
That goal swung the game back Green’s way. A few minutes later (7:21 left in the second period), Mulhern (35 goals, 31 assists, 66 points) put his team ahead 3-2.
Then, three minutes and 56 seconds after that, the hats went a-flying. Beanies — and various other pieces of paraphernalia — littered the ice.
It meant hat trick. It meant extra ice time for four members of the Chicago Blackhawks Ice Crew.
Seeing that? Pretty cool.
“And it gave me a little breather,” said Raith, smiling.
They all count the same, but Raith’s third goal was eye dessert for the hardcore hockey fan.
Three New Trier Green players — Raith, Burton and Nico Meyer — played it perfectly.
“Nico dropped the puck to me, while Burton got in front of the net,” said Raith, who blasted in the shot from just outside the blue line. “He [Burton] knew I was feeling it. He knew I would be shooting.”
Burton’s screen was textbook.
“Their goalie is real good, and he’s real big,” said Burton, an all-state forward who finished the season with a team-best 73 points (28 goals, 45 assists). “Before the game, Jack and I talked about taking his eyes away.
“Jack and I have been playing together since freshman year,” Burton added. “We’ve always had good chemistry.”
Raith completed his night by scoring an empty netter from long range with 1:21 left in regulation. Senior Brandon Koch got the assist.
“Coming into this year, we knew that Raith was a good player,” said Melton. “But as the season went along, he got better and better. He got hungrier.”
Notable: New Trier Green closed out the season with a 54-10-1 record. Winning state was quite an accomplishment considering none of its players played varsity hockey last year. … Junior goalkeeper William Douthit handled some tough chances and ended up with 13 saves. … NT Green defenseman Stephan Bazianos was a little disappointed with his team’s defense. “Dillon [Munson] and I didn’t have the games of our lives,” he said. “I wished I would have played better. I was not happy about giving up those two early goals. But, at the end of the day, we did fine.” … Providence Catholic had plenty of firepower. Junior Jake Rott was named the AHAI Player of the Year. He had one assist in the state final. He finished the season with 58 goals and 79 assists. … With the win, veteran coach Bob Melton has guided NT Green to 11 state championships in 19 years. … NT Green’s other top scorers: junior Michael Graham (36 goals, 29 assists), junior John Huber (32 goals, 34 assists), senior Louis Lybrook (17 goals, 29 goals), senior Joe Graves (21 goals, 21 assists), senior Nico Meyer (16 goals, 21 assists), junior Daniel McNerney (18 goals, 12 assists), senior Alex Levine (11 goals, 14 assists), senior Jack Cadden (9 goals, 10 assists) and junior Daniel Hauser (10 goals, 6 assists). … NT’s defensemen also were productive: Bazianos (8 goals, 22 assists), Munson (5 goals, 16 assists), senior Brandon Koch (8 goals, 19 assists), senior Chris Sonnenschein (4 goals, 15 assists), junior Tristan Jones (2 goals, 17 assists) and sophomore Mason Smith (3 goals, 9 assists).