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Lakers still trying to gain traction on ice

Breast Cancer Awareness fund-raising hockey game featuring Lakers vs Warren JV. | Mark Ukena/For Sun-Times Media

Breast Cancer Awareness fund-raising hockey game featuring Lakers vs Warren JV. | Mark Ukena/For Sun-Times Media

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The Lakers play their home games at Rink Side Sports in Gurnee Mills, which is also the home rink for Warren.

Lakers beat Warren JV 6-0 on Saturday and tied Libertyville JV 3-3 on Monday.

Overal,l they are 8-1-2, not including exhibition games. They will play around 50 games total during the high school season, between tournaments, exhibitions, and the regular season.

The play in the Junior Varsity Division of the Illinois High School Hockey League’s (IHSHL) North-Central Division, which includes high schools from Lake County and northern Cook County, including Chicago.

They have allowed just 6 goals in their 6 league games to this point.

This year’s squad draws from Grayslake Central, Grayslake North, Antioch, and Lakes high schools. They also have a goalkeeper from Warren, who was cut from the Blue Devils’ squad, and a goalkeeper from Waukegan who did not have anywhere else to play high school hockey.

The squad features 21 freshmen/sophomores, 5 juniors, plus 2 goalies.

Some of the players are already varsity caliber and would have played on the varsity team had the program had enough players to field one at that level.

Saturday’s game was part of Warren’s Pink Out effort for the Avon Walk, which helps raise awareness and provides support to breast cancer patients.

Lakers staff: D.J. Dusak is hockey director, Jen Zemba is secretary, Tim Rafferty is JV head coach, Matt DeGroot is an assistant coach, Brad Drogos is an assistant coach, Nick Cosmano is goalie coach.

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Updated: December 2, 2013 12:25PM

Rarely do you think of the fast-paced sport of ice hockey in these terms, but those associated with the Lakers prep hockey program certainly hope that slow and steady really does win the race.

That’s the master plan laid out for the second-year high school program, which is still in the growing-pains process and has one eye on the present and the other on the future.

The Lakers team consists of players from Grayslake Central, Grayslake North, Antioch and Lakes high schools, plus goalies from Warren and Waukegan. Basically, it’s the prep team for the northern half of Lake County, minus Warren High which has its own team.

The program started last year and tried to field teams at both the varsity and JV levels, but wound up playing shorthanded on both sides.

This year, the program has gone JV only, which is a double-edged sword but certainly is in the best interests of future growth. The problem is that the area’s top skaters — would-be varsity standouts — have no team to play on, so they have to go join a club team. In hockey, for high school-age players, there is high school hockey and there’s club hockey called “Midget Division” hockey.

Based on the leadership of the Lakers, the program is here to stay.

“The word is out there. Everybody we’ve gotten involved wants to stick around, and they want to build,” said R.J. Dusak, the program’s director. “We don’t want to be here for two seasons, and that’s it, like the Ramquoits (an old Antioch/Grayslake prep team), who were around for a couple years and then they disappear. We don’t want to be that team. A big part of it is getting more people involved, more people on the board and things like that, so that they don’t hang around for one year and leave. The same goes for our coaches. We want coaches who are committed to our program.”

On this day, the Lakers were playing Warren’s JV team as part of Pink Out Day for all of Warren High’s teams (JV/varsity/girls) to raise money for the Avon Walk against breast cancer. Both the Lakers and Warren play out of Rink Side Sports in Gurnee Mills, so teaming up for the fundraiser was a natural.

Players on both teams used pink tape and there were pink displays all over the lobby that led to the arena.

“An event like this is great. We’re playing in front of a full house. Even though Warren is a rival, it’s great working with them,” said Dusak. “It gets the word out there, so people in the hockey community are aware of us. The pink T-shirts our kids wore for warmups they wore to school this week, so the other kids got to see them. And of course, winning games always helps bring players in.”

That is the key to this whole Lakers thing ... quantity of players. Right now, the number is in the low 20s — too few for two teams and really too many for one. The key is to get that number up to 35 for the future.

“We’re working with the Maulers and the Patriots, trying to get our team involved as almost like a big brother program,” Dusak said of club programs based out of Gurnee Mills (Maulers) and just north of the state line (Patriots). “The idea is to work with their mite and squirt teams, and have our boys get in touch with them a couple times a month and see how things are going. Kids get a kick out of that, when a high school. We’re trying to build that connection right now.”

Jen Zemba is secretary of the Lakers, and she’s in her second year with the program.

“Last year was really about trying to get the boys on the ice,” she said. “We were just putting the organization together for the first time. This year is more about figuring out team events, getting the boys to jell as a team, and taking part in events like this. Now we finally have time to do more of this stuff and become more a part of the community, and hopefully that will help the community become more involved with us.”

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