CHICAGO – In the youth hockey universe, the Chicago Mission is considered one of the premier youth hockey programs in the country and a perennial contender at the Chipotle-USA Hockey National Championships in every division.
Over the years they have enjoyed a great deal of success on the road as 10 of the program’s 11 titles have taken place away from the Windy City. As the host team for this year’s Tier I 14U tournament, this Mission squad has not been very hospitable to the competition as far as the play on the ice is concerned.
In their first three preliminary round games, the Mission have executed a workmanlike effort spearheaded by balanced scoring and solid goaltending to claim the top spot in the NHL division to punch their ticket to a quarterfinal matchup against the Dallas Stars.
More than the team’s success on the scoreboard, head coach Christian Hmura is most proud of the way his team has played against the best 14U teams in the country. His players are finally healthy and hitting their stride at the right time with an unselfish brand of hockey that has the 34-year-old coach showering his team with praise.
“I literally just pointed that out in my postgame speech how these guys are coming into the point of their season where it is super important that everybody’s contributing and finding ways to get it done. I’m really pleased with that,” Hmura said after his team’s 6-2 victory over the Rochester (N.Y.) Saints.
Ten different Mission players have found the back of the net in the tournament, with only Ethan Baker and Andrew Horn scoring more than once. And that’s just the way Hmura and his coaching staff want to see. It’s amazing what a team can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit.
“I’m a true believer in playing a team game and when you’re doing that you really get surprised at who’s contributing and who’s scoring. Right now we’re getting guys that haven’t scored much in the past who are finding ways to contribute big time,” Hmura said.
“They’re capitalizing on a team effort. There’s a lot of things that are happening before those guys are actually scoring goals. It’s nice to see that they’re getting rewarded, but I make it a point of emphasis that there are five guys on the ice and a lot needs to happen before that goal is actually scored.”
On the back end, Bjorn Bronas has played every minute between the pipes and has been solid when called upon, which hasn’t been all that often.
“Historically we don’t give up too many shots so I don’t envy our goaltenders because a lot of times they’re sitting there for five minutes at a time without a shot and all of a sudden they have to stop a two on one rush or something,” Hmura said.
This team mentality is all part of the culture that trickles down from the top with club president Gino Cavallini, who has been with the Mission president for 11 years. After winning an NCAA title with Bowling Green State University and embarking on a 17-year pro career, Cavallini turned his attention to developing the next generation of youth hockey players, first in Milwaukee, and then in Illinois. His track record when it comes to developing players to succeed at the next level, whether that’s juniors, college or the NHL is unmatched.
“Gino has a lot of wisdom in his years and I think he brings a very calming, reassuring effect to the organization. He’s really good at is keeping things on a level, consistent basis,” said Hmura, who took over as the organization’s director of hockey operations in 2021.
“I think that really trickles down to all the coaches and we really love having him around. And what’s even more important I think the players in the club love seeing Gino, they always get excited when he is around, and he's just a great guy to have around.”
Unfortunately for the crowds gathering here at the Fifth Third Arena, Cavallini is on the road with the Mission’s 16 & Under team competing in Rochester, Mich. Even with coaches scattered around the country at various national championship sites, they manage to stay in touch through group text chains that let everyone know how other Mission teams are faring.
“We all feel like we’re with each other because everybody’s updating what’s going on at their tournament. So even though we’re all kind of in different parts of the country right now it feels like we’re all together,” Hmura said. “At the end of the day, we’re all close and we just have a good culture and environment where everybody’s excited to see how each other does. It feels like we’re all in the same building, playing with each other.”
Still, it’s nice to have Nationals taking place at their home rink. Not only does it help to be able to sleep in their own beds and dress in their own locker room, they have benefitted from the great support of family and friends, not to mention the rest of the local hockey community.
“I’ve gotten a lot of text messages over the past couple weeks saying we can’t wait to come see your games,” he said.
“It’s really cool for the boys because we play probably 90 percent of our games on the road, so we don’t get to play in front of our friends and family too much. It’s very special for our boys and just being able to have of their friends come out and other Mission teams come out and watch. It’s pretty cool for the kids.”