GENEVA – For Chicago Steel defenseman and Geneva native Graham Lillibridge, it was all about staying positive that night in May.
“We knew as a unit going into overtime it was anyone’s game,” Lillibridge said. “I remember being in the locker room before the extra time started the guys who were not dressed for the game were more nervous and pacing around more than the guys who were playing in the game. Our locker room was quieter than usual.”
Lillibridge does remember downing a full bottle of Gatorade before going back out for the overtime as the Steel scored the game winner for a 2-1 victory and 3-2 series win in the U.S. Hockey League’s Clark Cup Finals on May 23. He also remembered to have faith in the system his team was playing in under former coach Dan Muse.
“I was sorry to see him go,” Lillibridge said. “But we all kind of had a feeling something was going to happen with him after we had won the Cup. I just cannot thank him enough for what he has done for me at this level.”
Muse had recruited Lillibridge to play for Yale University when he was just 15 years old. However, the two united in Geneva when the Steel traded for Lillibridge when Muse was the head coach. The two became champions together when the Steel won that dramatic Game 5, clinching the franchise’s first USHL title.
“I remember the rink getting very quiet when we scored,” Lillibridge said. “It was almost surreal to me. I just thought to myself when we won, ‘Wow,’ and then some shock set in, especially since I assisted on the game winner.”
Since that winning moment, Lillibridge, who was nursing a shoulder injury during the playoffs, took a well-deserved break from hockey.
“I took three weeks off,” he said. “I went to go play golf in Hilton Head, S.C. It was good to get out of Geneva for a while.”
Lillibridge will get the chance to reunite with his teammate Aug. 9. The team will be honored by the Chicago White Sox for winning the USHL title and will be throwing out the first pitch before the White Sox game against Houston.
“It was kind of a bittersweet moment after we all gathered in Geneva at Aurelio’s Pizza for the celebration party,” he said. “A lot of guys just wanted to get home because a lot of them who will be playing college hockey next season actually had to start training with their [new] teams in June.”
Not only will there be a lot of new players lining up alongside Lillibridge, he will have to get used to a new coach in Mark Abalan.
“I am looking forward to working with coach Abalan,” he said. “It’s a different culture around the club now having won.”
But Lillibridge will not have to look far for a familiar face next season. He’ll be joined by Derek Daschke who will return for his final season with the Steel before playing college hockey at Western Michigan. Daschke was paired on defense with Lillibridge during the playoff run and for 20 games during the regular season last year.
“I knew we were going to win that final game against Sioux City,” Daschke said. “Even though the pace of that overtime was much slower than regulation time.”
The moment that stuck out most to Daschke was not so much the quietness of the arena after the Steel had scored, but a sign.
“One of the parents had managed to capture a sign that a fan from Sioux City had brought to the game,” he said. “It said, ‘The Cup is in the building and it’s not leaving.’ We brought that sign home with us and everyone on the team signed it and took pictures with it along with the cup.”
Daschke also took three weeks off after the season, but, as he tells it, the downtime made him miserable.
“I hated not doing anything hockey-related,” he said. “I knew I did need some sort of break, but you can only play video games for so long.”
Now that his break is over, Daschke has been working out five to six days a week and playing in a summer hockey league near his home in Troy, Mich. He also met with the Western Michigan coaching staff, who told Daschke they want to see him work more on his skating.
“I think after winning the Cup like we did last year, the expectation level will be much higher for me,” Daschke said. “I expect a lot more out of myself this upcoming year.”