One look up and down the roster of any U.S. national team typically and you’ll see the home states of many players start with the letter M — Minnesota, Michigan or Massachusetts. For the state with the most natives playing for this year’s U.S. National Junior Team, however, you have to travel up the alphabet a little ways to the letter I.
Five Illinois natives are part of Team USA’s roster for the World Junior Championship, four of which played the bulk of their developmental hockey within the state.
Defenseman Connor Carrick of Orland Park and forwards Tommy Di Pauli of Woodridge, Ryan Hartman of West Dundee, Vince Hinostroza of Bartlett and Stefan Matteau of Chicago all called Illinois home at one point. All but Matteau, who was born in the Windy City while his father Stephane was playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, also played the bulk of their youth hockey in the Land of Lincoln.
“It’s crazy for five to come out of Chicago,” said Hartman, who was part of last year’s gold-medal-winning squad at the World Juniors. “The development of Illinois hockey has really grown.”
“You keep in touch with all those guys when you’re in different places, but to be together in one place on the same team, it’s pretty cool,” said Hinostroza.
Illinois hockey has been on the rise for a long time, but only more recently has been churning out top-end players for junior and college hockey at a much higher clip.
That’s why Di Pauli, who was born and started playing hockey in Italy, and his family chose Chicago when they decided to move to the United States.
“Moving there from Italy, I knew that was a spot that produced good hockey players and that’s been proven,” said Di Pauli, who would join the Chicago Mission hockey club.
One of his first friends in the Chicago area was Hinostroza.
“He’s one of my best friends,” said Di Pauli of Hinostroza, who also played for Mission. “We’ve grown up together, so we’re pretty close.”
Di Pauli and Hinostroza actually played on the same line with Hartman in the Midget ranks. Upon the conclusion of their midget hockey careers, Di Pauli then spent two years with Hartman at the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., and has since been reunited with Hinostroza at the University of Notre Dame, where the duo has often been paired on the same line.
“It’s awesome,” said Hartman of being joined on Team USA by his former linemates. “I was with Tommy for two years [at the NTDP]. Now they’re both at Notre Dame. So we both have been switching off. It’s good to be on the same ice with both of them again.”
Carrick, meanwhile, played for the Chicago Fury hockey club out of his native Orland Park, where he would often be pitted against his future U.S. teammates.
“I think it’s really cool, and it’s a testament of how Chicago hockey is growing,” Carrick noted of those that made Team USA. “I think the 1994s were a strong birth year, the 95s came up with some players and the 96s are supposed to be really good.”
Carrick rattled off a number of former Fury teammates currently playing at Division I college programs and remembered fondly the competitiveness of his last years of Midget hockey.
“The 94 birth year was different,” Carrick explained. “Chicago Young Americans, Mission, our team had some talent and Team Illinois had some guys. We were all top-10, top-12 in the country.”
All of the Illinois players are proud to represent their area on Team USA, but each is especially excited about the continued growth in Illinois hockey thanks to the Blackhawks, winners of the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cups.
“I think it’s just going to keep improving and keep developing,” said Hartman of youth hockey in Illinois. “The more the [Blackhawks] win, the fans and their kids start trying hockey and as the fan base grows, hockey keeps growing and growing. You can’t go anywhere without seeing a Blackhawks hat or jersey anymore.”
Hartman and Hinostroza also have a special distinction among the Illinois natives on Team USA. They’re also Blackhawks draft picks.
“Being a Blackhawk now, it’s a dream come true,” said Hartman, who was selected 30th overall in the first round by Chicago at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. “I grew up watching them and knowing all the players and going to games. I was with them for a few preseason games, which was really fun. I got to be in the locker room with [Jonathan] Toews and [Patrick] Kane, so it was pretty surreal.”
Hinostroza, who was selected by the Blackhawks in the seventh round in the 2012 draft, has used being a local prospect as motivation.
“I always got to keep working,” Hinostroza explained. “A lot of people know I’m drafted from back home because everyone loves the Blackhawks, so I’ve just got to keep pushing to make sure I make it there.”
Carrick also had an interesting moment earlier in the year when he made his NHL debut as a member of the Washington Capitals in Chicago for the season opener against the Blackhawks.
“I haven’t been able to go back at all since then,” Carrick said. “It’ll be interesting to walk into Arctic Ice Arena [in Orland Park] and see old friends and the younger hockey players.”
Knowing that there are going to be a lot of youth hockey players from the area looking up to them over the years, each of the Illinois players embraces the responsibility of being a role model.
Hinostroza recalls when the roles were reversed.
“It’s really cool to be a role model to little kids,” he said. “I always had role models from the Chicago area that played college and went onto the pros, so it’s really cool to be in that position.”
“I take a lot of pride in trying to be a good role model for kids,” said Carrick. “I’ve got two younger brothers, so I understand the role. I take it very seriously.”
With the way hockey is growing in Illinois and with role models like these, perhaps this quintet of local products representing the USA is starting a new trend.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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