It will happen.
Count on it.
A decade from now, maybe sooner, a New Trier Green player will score a goal in the Amateur Hockey Association Illinois (AHAI)/Blackhawk Cup state championship game at United Center and mimic the celebration that NT Green senior forward Michael Graham executed in the state title game last weekend.
Graham’s first of two goals — in a 4-2 defeat of Providence Catholic on March 17, Green’s 14th state title in program history — was followed by a sequence in which the game’s Most Valuable Player turned into a human Zamboni. Graham, while gliding near joyous teammates after the game’s opening goal, applied his gloved right hand to the Chicago Blackhawks’ home ice sheet and smoothed it vigorously.
It was an in-the-moment reaction.
Proposal: Name it “The Michael Graham.”
“I like it,” a grinning Graham — sporting a patchy playoff beard — said afterward.
But the AHAI all-stater, who also issued an assist in his final prep game, loved what his team had accomplished in front of between 12,000-15,000 mostly green-clad spectators on St. Patrick’s Day. More than a few in UC’s seats had to be future NT Green skaters, all wide-eyed and impressionable.
“Every year it’s an amazing experience, playing here,” said Graham, who finished NT’s 67-9 season with 51 goals and 51 assists. “We’ve all dreamed of playing like Blackhawks or other NHL players when we watch games. But some of our early hockey heroes were New Trier Green players.”
NT Green’s defeat of Providence Catholic’s Celtics last weekend was its fifth in as many encounters this winter, with Green outscoring PC by an aggregate of 24-10. The closest game was a 5-4 decision on Sept. 22; the most decisive contest was a 7-2 outcome on Nov. 11, when seven Green players scored a goal apiece at Darien Sportsplex Ice Arena.
NT Green, which beat Providence Catholic 5-2 in last year’s state final, did not lose to an Illinois team in 2016-17 — and it ended the season with a remarkable 32-game winning streak.
“This was one of my best teams I’ve ever coached,” said NT Green coach Bob Melton, who improved to 12-1 in AHAI/Blackhawk Cup state finals since taking the reigns of the NT Green program at the start of the 1997-98 season. “It was deep, with a lot of different line combinations.”
Green relied on two goaltenders this winter: junior Hayden Wieczorek (34 wins) and senior Scott Foster (33). Wieczorek, the club’s backup goalie last year, got the starting nod last weekend. The handshake that Wieczorek and Foster share features a double tap and a salute. Before the start of each period in the championship game, the two had a brief confab near a UC goal.
“Scott told me [before the first period], ‘Have fun, stay focused and enjoy the moment,’ ” Wieczorek recounted after his 25-save night. “Great guy. Scott’s a great guy.
“I’m really proud of my boys … of my defensemen and my forwards,” the netminder added.
Senior defenseman and all-stater Connor Baldwin controlled an airborne puck with a glove to trigger the action that led to Graham’s first goal (a power-play tally). Baldwin then delivered a quick pass to forward Kyle Retondo, who dished the puck to Graham.
Graham then beat all-state goaltender Ryan Iaciancio (37 saves) with 2:41 left in the first period.
NT Green senior forward Charlie Burton — honored as the JJ O’Connor Male High School Player of the Year in an on-ice ceremony during the first intermission — made it a 2-0 game in the fourth minute of the second period following a slick feed from forward Matthew Mulhern. A thrilled Burton rushed toward the largest contingent of euphoric Green fans and launched himself into sturdy UC glass.
“All of these guys, my teammates, are my best friends,” said Burton, who, like Graham, might give club hockey a try at the University of Illinois. “And we don’t have one guy who carries the whole team; we’re all about teamwork.”
NT Green’s leading scorer, senior forward Tommy Cahill (64 goals, 61 assists), sustained an injury to his right shoulder in the second period and did not return.
It was the second tough circumstance Green had to overcome in the period.
Earlier, a New Trier Green player unintentionally scored Providence Catholic’s first goal into an empty net during a delayed penalty.
Melton called it an “Oh wow” moment.
“Our guys rallied around the mistake and held a fabulous Providence Catholic team to only one goal,” the coach added.
Forward John Robinson scored NT Green’s third goal, off an assist from Graham, to increase the lead to 3-1 with 1:50 remaining in the second period.
Providence Catholic’s faithful was at its loudest when a Jake Vennetti goal made it a 3-2 game in the fourth minute of the third period. In hockey, the difference between a 3-1 advantage and a 3-2 lead is akin to the difference between a blue whale and a gnat.
It remained a taut affair for the rest of the period, until Graham finished what he had started by striking a half-rink shot into an empty net with 27 seconds left. The final assist of the game came from NT Green senior forward Jack Raith, who potted four goals in last year’s state championship game.
“I didn’t think that last one would go in,” Graham said. “I thought, ‘Icing, for sure.’ But it curled in.”
Another stretch of elation ensued — coupled with sighs of relief — and the only other order of business would be one related to equipment.
Flying equipment, to be exact.
Sticks and gloves from jubilant Green players got tossed as soon as the final horn blared.
Notable: NT Green limited Providence Catholic standout forward Jacob Rott to one assist in the AHAI/Blackhawk Cup state championship last weekend. … NT Green’s top eight players in points in the 2016-17 season: Tommy Cahill (64 goals, 61 assists); Jack Raith (55, 64); Charlie Burton (41, 62); Michael Graham (51, 51); Matthew Mulhern (44, 43); John Huber (36, 42); Kyle Retondo (23, 36); and John Robinson (30, 23). … NT Green junior goaltender Hayden Wieczorek finished with a save percentage of .911.