Cassel, 10 seniors prepare for final home game as Illini hockey faces EMU

When the horn sounds Saturday night against Eastern Michigan, the 10 seniors on the Illini hockey roster will have heard their name introduced for the final time by the PA announcer. It’ll be the last time they will be on the ice to hear the fans chant “It’s all your fault!” at the away team’s goalie after he gives up a goal. It’s the last time they’ll skate at the Illinois Ice Arena as members of the Illini.

It’s also is the last time head coach Chad Cassel will coach at home for Illinois. Cassel has announced his retirement at the end of the season.

“I been doing this for 16 years,” Cassel said. “It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s time. I feel like I got one more good run in me here in the national tournament … but the main focus is on our seniors and our alumni.”

When those seniors reflected on their time as Illini, they all took a deep breath before reminiscing over their careers.

“I haven’t really thought about it yet, to be honest I don’t really think it’s going to sink in until after this weekend’s over,” senior captain Justin Wirt said.

“Well, it’s kind of hard to put it all into a few short phrases but just being a part of the program — it’s been amazing, a lot of my best friends are here,” forward Andrew Cardona said. “It’s definitely been one of the coolest hockey experiences of my playing career.”

“It’s been a lot of fun; it definitely went by quick,” defenseman Chris Peter said. “It’s one thing that I’ve been hearing since I was a freshman. Coaches always say to me, ‘You’re closer to the end than the beginning,’ so it’s kind of weird reflecting how quick the four years go by.”

“It’s just been a great experience getting to play in an atmosphere where you get a lot of fans,” goalkeeper Dan Rooney said.

Some players, like Wirt and Cardona, have been members of the team the past four seasons and got to play for the national championship as freshmen but came up short.

“At the time you thought you were going to get back four more times,” Wirt said. “Looking back, you wish you would’ve finished.”

Wirt was quick to point out there is a chance to finish his freshman-year goal of winning a national championship. The Illini begin the ACHA tournament next weekend.

Some of the other seniors transferred to Illinois at differing points in their careers. Rooney has only been an Illini for a little more than a year and a half and played in 11 games. He said adjusting to the large campus at the University wasn’t easy, but getting acclimated on the ice was second nature.

“I felt like I fit in right away,” Rooney said. “I grew up playing with a lot of these guys, so I felt at home.”

But it’s the fans the Illini will miss the most. The players all spoke about how they loved playing in front of packed crowds at the Ice Arena.

“I’m ready to put on a good final show for our fans because they’ve been so great for these four years of my career,” Cardona said.

Besides some men’s leagues and recreational play, senior night will be the swan song on the ice for the graduating Illini.

“I’m probably going to hang them up,” Wirt said with a laugh. “I’m not going to try and push it any further than it needs to.”