GENEVA – Graham Lillibridge has long known his goal is to play in the National Hockey League.
He's doing about everything he can to help position himself for that chance.
Before Lillibridge heads east to play collegiately at Yale, the Geneva native and former Chicago Steel defenseman is tuning up his game in the Chicago Pro Hockey League. The first-year venture consists of NHL and up-and-coming talent.
Lillibridge is a defenseman on Team Warrior Hockey, which boasts current and former Chicago Blackhawks including Brandon Saad, Brandon Bollig (now an unrestricted free agent), Ryan Hartman (Nashville Predators) and Brandon Pirri (Las Vegas Golden Knights).
Other notable Chicago Blackhawks players participating league-wide are Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, and the recently-traded Vinne Hinostroza, part of the Marian Hossa package deal to the Arizona Coyotes.
Eight teams are in the league across two divisions. Games are played at the MB Ice Arena in Chicago.
"The biggest benefit [for me] is playing against these guys," Lillibridge said. "It gives you exposure to players at the next level...it makes you realize that in the grand scheme of things, not many people make it as far as I have."
"It also makes you realize that even though you're close, there's still a lot of work to be done in order to compete and play against those guys every single night," Lillibridge continued.
Players can use the league as an extension of their training over the summer before their respective leagues begin their seasons. The league, which had been in development since last year, was started by a group headlined by Anders Sorensen, the Blackhawks' player development coach.
Brian Keane, the owner of Prodigy Hockey – a skills development business – trains Lillibridge, and helped bring some of the NHL and American Hockey League talent to the CPHL.
"We're working on specific things with Graham, and all of our other players. We want to see them trying this stuff in these games," Keane said. "Whether it's a specific skating technique, an evasive skating technique, deception or whatever it may be."
The proceeds generated by the CPHL are donated to designated charities each week, which include St. Jude's Children Research Hospital, Special Olympics Chicago and more.
CPHL play began earlier this month, and continues until mid-August. Lillibridge will move into Yale shortly afterward. The 19-year-old played with the Steel for two seasons and helped the franchise win the Clark Cup in 2017.
Lillibridge looks back fondly on his time with the Steel.
"Winning the Clark Cup would be the fondest memory," said Lillibridge, who amassed 73 points in 115 regular season games played with the franchise. Lillibridge played the 2015 season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
"It's something that you just can't put into words," he continued. "It's a special moment to share with all the guys on the team."