Illini hockey calls on D-II prospects for weekend slate

Illinois hockey head coach Chad Cassel has been busy recruiting. With his team derailed by injuries, suspensions and forward Jonathon Sakellaropoulos’s missing Friday’s game to take the LSAT on Saturday morning in Chicago, Cassel sought help from the outside.

He found it with sophomore defenseman Ben Burbridge and senior forwards on the Division II Illinois club hockey team, Rick Vaca and Devan O’Dowd. All three practiced with the team for the first time Tuesday and are expected to play this weekend against Lindenwood.

Burbridge played with the Illini as recently as the fall, but decided to take some time off after being placed on academic probation. When he received a voicemail from Cassel on his phone Tuesday, he knew he had to think about his decision.

“I miss (hockey), so any chance I got to come back, I would love to,” Burbridge said. “I had a pretty lengthy conversation with my parents. But they know I love it, so they support me being here. As long as I keep up with school I should be OK.”

As if getting his parents to agree to his playing wasn’t enough, he didn’t have his equipment on campus. Burbridge’s dad, Cliff, drove from Naperville, Ill., with his equipment for his son to practice.

“He’s got a handle of all his studies so he’s ready to go,” Cliff said. “I’m retired, so I have time, so it wasn’t a big deal bringing him all his stuff.”

O’Dowd and Vaca both jumped at the opportunity when they received phone calls from Cassel. Both are 5-foot-10 senior forwards who are getting a chance to play in their first Division I ACHA college game.

O’Dowd has taken a long path to get to where he wants to be. As a freshman, he played Division III hockey at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, before transferring to Illinois to play on the Division II team. He hopes that this weekend isn’t his last chance to play on Illinois’ premier club.

“I’ve always wanted the chance to play, and I knew this would be something to explore and give it my best shot,” O’Dowd said. “I’m hoping to bring a lot of energy and good floor presence.”

Vaca called the opportunity a pleasant surprise. It’s not hard to see why Cassel invited him from the Division II team; his 39 points lead the team.

“I’m not the biggest guy out there, but hopefully I’ll still be able to score,” Vaca said.

Cassel said his team is going to need the help, as its depth will be challenged this weekend.

“It’s a tough situation,” Cassel said. “But they’re smart kids and we need the help.”