By Jason Maholy
George Hayes, an instrumental figure in the growth of high school hockey in Illinois and a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame, died March 29 after a long battle with diabetes. He was 68.
Hayes is survived by his wife, Karen, to who he was married for 48 years; his sons, Pete, Dave and Karl; and four grandchildren, Kyle, Caden, Vivian and Amelia.
Hayes began coaching in the Chicago area in 1983 at the Elmhurst YMCA and founded the Illinois Suburban Hockey League – originally known as the West Suburban JV Hockey League – in the early 1990s. He coached until 1996 and afterward remained involved with the league, retiring in 2013.
The ISHL was in his honor renamed the Hayes-Suburban Division of the Illinois High School Hockey League, and the league’s JV Champion trophy was renamed the Hayes Cup. He was inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.
Hayes wasn’t alone in making the ISHL successful – executive board members including his close friend Bob Stevenson were instrumental in that regard – but his leadership and administrative skills were key.
“His gift was bringing people together to move toward a common goal,” said his son, Dave Hayes, who after playing for his father served under him as an assistant coach. “He was very much a people person.”
Dave recalled the night his dad brought Stevenson on to the ISHL executive board. The men’s introduction earlier that evening hadn’t gone over well, as the two coaches’ teams had engaged in a contentious matchup on the ice.
“Bob wanted to fight my dad in the parking lot afterward,” Dave said with a laugh. “But they wound up being the best of friends.”
Hayes’ coaching career included eight years at Willowbrook, where he coached all three of his sons as well as a foreign exchange student in who lived at the family’s home in the early 1990s.
Hayes was the first Illinois high school hockey league president to allow co-op teams that combined multiple high schools, and he wrote the original rules for combined teams.
“He did whatever he could to give every player an opportunity to play. He gave people a place to play – that’s what my dad did for high school hockey,” said his son, Karl Hayes, in a post by longtime Illinois high school hockey writer Ross Forman on the Amateur Hockey Association Illinois website. “He just wanted to grow the sport. He wanted everyone to be able to play, and he wanted everyone to have fun.”
Illinois High School Hockey League President Steve Silvey, in a post on the AHAI website, stated the foundation Hayes laid more than 40 years ago is the modern operating umbrella for high school hockey.
“He was ahead of the times monitoring the competitive environment of his teams,” Silvey wrote. “League seasons were structured with an early seeding round of games and then re-balancing to minimize skill disparity from session to session. Using positive reinforcement to discourage fighting, George was an early adopter of adding an automatic additional sanction at the league level.”
Silvey said Hayes started the ISHL and its precursors – the Iliana Hockey League and West Suburban JV League – at a time when there wasn’t a book for high school hockey in Illinois.
“The story goes that he wrangled some kind of relationship with the WHA Chicago Cougars that played at the International Amphitheater,” Silvey wrote. “Called the Cougar Cup, the league trophy is one of the oldest continuous awards in the state.”
The Lyons Township Hockey Club won the first trophy to conclude the 1973-74 season.
David Steinberger, a former coach for the Spartans Hockey Club, a co-op team composed of athletes from several high schools, labeled Hayes “an administrator’s version of a rink rat,” according to a post on the AHAI site.
“Every time I went to the rink he would be there. He loved the game and wanted the best for every player, coach and team,” Steinberger said. “George worked hard to make the Illinois Suburban Hockey League successful. If one of his schools had issues with numbers he would work with them to continue the program.”
Despite Hayes’ passion for hockey, he never played the sport on an organizational level -- only on the ponds at Marquette Park on Chicago’s South Side. As a youth his favorite sports were baseball and basketball, and he was a huge White Sox fan. He was at one time an avid bowler and once rolled a 300 game.
Prior to putting dedicated his time and efforts to high school hockey, Hayes raced dirt-track stock cars. He pursued that endeavor as he did all his passions.
“He put 100 percent into everything he did,” Dave Hayes said. “He was a very hard worker, and if he decided he was going to do something he was all in. And when he was done with something, he was done with it.”
He also loved animals and was a longtime supporter of the Collie Rescue of Greater Illinois, Inc.
Hockey rinks were, however, his true home away from home, and to him there was no better night to spotlight the sport than during the annual ISHL All-Star Games. He often contracted a wedding DJ to play at the games, and he incorporated memorable fan engagement elements between periods. He handled much of the announcing.
“He did it up, and the All-Star games were the place to be,” Karl Hayes said. “He was so proud at the league All-Star Games. He lived for that moment of the season. He loved the ISHL All-Star Games.
“Seeing his smile at the All-Star games … that was my fondest memory of him with hockey.”
Marist head coach Mark Bandzi met Hayes about 25 years ago at the then-new Arctic Ice Arena in Orland Park.
“His first priority back then was to create a league that offered parity to all teams involved,” Bandzi said in the AIHA website post. “He wanted as many kids, no matter what their ability or background in hockey, to have a place to play where they would have evenly-matched competition.”
Hayes would have as many divisions as needed to ensure the playoffs and finals would be competitive, Bandzi said.
“His vision created opportunities for many players to be able to play in a championship that they never would have in other leagues … (and) all championship games were close,” Bandzi said. “What I admired most about George was every decision he made on how the league ran, (from) all-star games to playoffs and championship games, was always based on the best experiences for the player.
“It was about ‘our league,’ not ‘his league.’”