‘Big Five’ depart Illini hockey on eve of Lindenwood series

By Alex Paull

With the home stretch of the season now upon them, five players – Jordan Pringle, Johnny Liang, JJ Heredia, Brad Hoelzer and Pierce Butler – have their sights set on the weeks of big competition that lie ahead. Unfortunately for Illini hockey, that competition doesn’t include this weekend’s series against No. 1 Lindenwood, and the Illini faithful won’t be seeing them anytime soon.

When Illinois (22-6) faces off against the Lions at the “Big Pond” this Friday, it will skate to its bench a bit lighter. These five key contributors will start playing for the U.S. National Team in the World University Games halfway around the world in Harbin, China.

The Universiade, more commonly known as the World University Games, is an international sporting event where university athletes from various countries compete in a wide range of sports. Organized by the International University Sports Federation (FISU), the games take place every two years, with the hockey competition lasting three weeks.

The Illini will lose some leadership with their captain, Pringle, headlining the group going to the Far East. The offense will also take a hit; as Heredia, Hoelzer, Liang and Butler fly out of Champaign, so do 36 goals and 82 assists.

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For a team that has struggled to establish an identity this season, the task won’t get any easier. Suggestions have already been made for solutions to that problem.

“They need to simplify the game,” Pringle said. “Play well defensively and not try to make the perfect play.”

But some in the locker room were quick to point out that the loss of the five players could actually be a good thing.

“It’s going to be a huge loss because it’s five of our best players,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “At the same time, I am also excited because some guys are going to step up and play well. And hopefully with guys who haven’t had much of an opportunity this year, we’ll see some good things.”

The younger players Cassel alluded to can’t be emphasized enough. With all the inconsistency that has plagued the Illini so far, the need for other guys to step up has never been more critical.

“It is a time for the younger guys to step in and show what they can do,” Liang said. “I’ve been talking to them, telling them it’s the last month of the season and it’s time for them to grow and step up while we’re gone.”

Listening to the players, if anyone should feel upset about the situation, it should be the players leaving, not the ones staying. The split has evoked mixed feelings.

“You feel a little guilty,” Pringle said. “It’s my senior year and I’m going to be missing four home games against good teams. At the same time, it’s a great opportunity and we’re really excited to head over there.”

If anyone could attest to the gravity of this type of situation, it’s Pringle, who encountered the same situation two years ago and thinks this could provide a similar boost for some of the younger players on the team now.

“I think it will be good for future years of the program,” Pringle added. “The same situation happened my sophomore season when a bunch of guys left and I had to step in and play more than I normally did. I think it really gives young guys a chance to prove their worth on the team.”

One of the young guys expected to produce is freshman Sam Fatigato. While his four points in 10 games this season isn’t staggering, coaches and players alike feel he’s one of the players to build around in the future. He knows it, too.

“There is a little pressure, especially stepping up to the number one power play unit,” Fatigato said. “Especially when playing against Lindenwood and Iowa State, you just got to push through it and take what you get. I’m looking to take my game to the next level.”

Aside from the Illini’s need for more production out of young players, having their goaltending intact and playing home games against Lindenwood and Iowa State should be helpful.

“Two of the three weeks are at home, and I don’t care who we are playing or what lineup is out there, I expect us to play well and win games at home,” Cassel said. “Hopefully we can roll into tournament time and do well.”

Having Jason Nemeth around doesn’t hurt, either.

Arguably the Illini’s top performer this year, Nemeth will be taking over the captaincy duties for Pringle while he’s gone – a decision that was a no-brainer.

Never at a loss for words or confidence, Nemeth understands that his leadership on the team will be crucial.

“I’m going to have to play a bigger role, be more of a senior leader,” Nemeth said. “A lot of guys need to step up, so I’m going to need to tell them that. But we don’t lose at home, so I think we should win here. I still think we are one of the best teams in the league.”

To prove they are still one of the best, Illinois will have to beat some of the best, beginning with No. 1 Lindenwood at home on Friday and Saturday.

Facing the Lions may not be the ideal matchup for Illinois’ first game with a retooled team. The Illini know their special teams must improve and slip-ups can’t happen, regardless of who they’re playing.

“We are going to have to play well on defense because we have been making bad turnovers,” Cassel said. “We are going to need to eliminate our mistakes. Especially playing against number one Lindenwood, there’s no margin for error.”

Fortunately for the Illini, the five players will be back for the ACHA National Tournament and hopefully ready to defend their championship.

“This will be the highest level of hockey they ever play, so this going to be a great experience for them,” Cassel said. “Hopefully when they get back, the game will be a little slower for them and we can expect that much more out of them.”