The crest on the front of Jake Hamilton's hockey sweater isn't overly complicated and yet represents more than meets the eye.
Look closely and the insignias from four local high schools emerge, speaking to the diversity that exists among Hamilton and his teammates. But printed atop the shield, embroidered letters spell K-I-N-G-S – a team name that links everything together, speaking to the unity that has been created in one of the area's more unique hockey programs.
It's a program built from scratch, assembling on-ice talent from Hampshire, Jacobs, Huntley and Dundee-Crown. Like any other organic product, the Kings have endured periods of growing pains and struggle. Over time, though, there has been maturity and growth, helping shape the Kings into a hockey program that is quickly becoming one not to be taken lightly.
Producing success hasn't come easy. Not for the coaching staff that assembled the Kings or for the players who once fought against one another on almost a daily basis but who have jelled into a cohesive unit.
The proof, it turns out, lies in the crest on the front of Jake Hamilton's sweater.
"My motto has always been, 'Play for the name on the front of the jersey – not the one on the back,'" said Hamilton, a junior defenseman and captain who attends Jacobs. "It's a good thing to go by because it doesn't matter where you come from, because as long as you're playing for all the schools on the front (of the sweater), you're playing together."
And playing together – for about 75 games a year – has played a major role in transforming the Kings into who they are today. Unlike many hockey programs, which compete together during the high school season before breaking up for the club season, the Kings choose to stick together for both.
Maintaining the same roster throughout the year has proved beneficial not only in building team chemistry among players who come from a variety of backgrounds – both on and off the ice – but also for Kings coach Joe Fell. The carry-over allows Fell to use his coaching style and game strategy while also relying on some of the on-ice combinations to ensure success during both the high school and club seasons.
"Your coaching philosophy, your system, your skill development – all of that is coming from the same coaching staff, and so they're all being drilled and they're all being taught and they're all implementing and they're all learning together," said Fell, who played hockey at the Air Force Academy and worked as the Blackhawks' video coach from 1995 to 1998. "So that extra game and practice time with the same kids absolutely promotes team chemistry.
"It's huge in their development."
The cohesiveness, however, wasn't always there.
In building the program, coaches took players from the four high schools. Although that gave the Kings a larger talent pool to draw from, it also meant taking kids just settling into their respective high school environments and throwing them together into something new.
Differences quickly became apparent, which led to conflicts that Hamilton said were almost inevitable. On a regular basis last year, disagreements routinely broke out on the bench as players trying to meld together as a unit sometimes had difficulty working through individual differences.
"There was no picking each other up," said junior co-captain and center Evan Page, who attends Hampshire. "It was more like, 'You [stink] at this, you [stink] at that, you're terrible."
Fell and his staff had to work swiftly to change the environment, creating one in which differences among players dwindled in exchange for a team-first setting. In the matter of a year, Page said he noticed a completely different on-ice product – one in which chemistry overshadowed individuality.
"Now, when some one messes up, a captain or a coach will come up to them and will tell them what they did wrong, tell them what they did right and will tell them how to improve," Page said. "Then, they'll go out there the next shift and do it right and everyone will tell them, 'Good job.'
"I think that's why we're excelling as a team."
The Kings made a marked improvement from their first high school year to their second, winning 18 games in their inaugural varsity season after starting with two JV teams the year before. The Kings are now in their spring season, using much of the same roster as they did over the winter to help the program take the next step forward. By the time the fall season rolls around – and when players such as Page and Hamilton will be high school seniors – the years of building the program will really start to pay off.
Gone are the days when players were forced to skate extra to make up for player altercations that disrupted practices. In its place is a team that has found common ground despite all of the individual differences.
Now, rather than playing for the individual school logos embedded into the team's crest, the Kings play for those five letters stretched across the front of the sweater.
Getting the Kings there, Fell said, was more difficult than he first anticipated. But after getting the program through some rough patches, Fell has seen things start to come together and emerge into the kind of team he envisioned when he arrived.
"In hockey, that brotherhood you develop with your teammates is something you don't find in other walks of life," Fell said. "Off the ice, they're all thick as thieves, and I think that really helps when you're talking about building those little nuances of your team.
"But with us, it's team first."