In a designated section of the Lexus Club in KeyBank Center stood a small group of hockey players dressed in formal attire preparing to strike a pose. About 50 feet away, another well-dressed crew decided taking photos in front of the lighted-entrance archway was pretty cool, too.
The first Hasek’s Heroes Western New York High School Hockey Awards banquet was all but officially in the books at that point. All that was left for the 325 in attendance to do was to take photos and secure other mental memories of the 2.5-hour ceremony that celebrated season achievements of boys and girls who played in the Western New York Varsity Federation and Western New York Club leagues.
One photo op near the awards podium included a snapshot of the night’s top award winners: Chase Chodowski (Federation boys), Frontier/Lake Shore/Orchard Park’s Brooke Becker (Federation girls) and Buffalo Explorers' Isaac Murray (Club League). They were selected as Players of the Year for their respective leagues.
“It’s a great honor,” said Chodowski, who led his team in scoring in helping West reach the state quarterfinals. “My teammates and family all helped me get to this point. It’s really awesome. I appreciate everybody for recognizing me.”
Though Hockey Hall of Famer and organization founder Dominik Hasek was not in attendance for this dinner, he played a big role in organizing it – including coming up with the $39 ticket price, according Jim Hornung Jr., Hasek’s Heroes president.
Wednesday night’s banquet was three years in the making, Hornung said. Football has a few banquets that honor its best. Wrestling, soccer, boys basketball and lacrosse also have end-of-season events.
“We saw a need in the community,” Hornung said. “We’re trying to model this similar to what’s done with high school football. We wanted to reward and recognize the student athlete.”
“It’s great for the community, it’s great for the sport, it’s great for the kids,” WNY Federation President and Section VI Chairman Mark DiFilippo said. “To promote our sport, you couldn’t ask for a better night.”
Organizers seemed determined to do it the right way, as they wanted girls hockey and club varsity, whose teams aren’t sponsored by their respective schools, to be recognized at the event, not just the boys Federation. That wasn’t lost on those at the event, especially Becker.
“It’s really nice the girls have recognition,” she said. “I’m super happy we had the opportunity to come to this banquet.”
“It’s a huge honor,” Murray said. “It’s my last year so it’s great to go out with something memorable.”
Williamsville’s Rick Hopkins earned girls coach of the year honors after guiding the team to its first Section VI and New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association championships.
Don Pray of Grand Island earned Federation boys coach of the year, and Thomas Grupp of Depew earned the Club league coaching honors.
Other winners included:
Goalies of the year: Isabella Battaglia of Monsignor Martin (Federation girls), Kyle Karoleski of St. Mary’s (Federation boys) and Corey Westfall of St. Joe’s (Club).
Offensive Players of the Year: Ethan Yotter of Kenmore West (Federation boys), Emma Roland of Williamsville (Federation girls) and Zachary Mecca of Orchard Park (Club).
Defensive Players of the Year: Mitchell Floccare of St. Joe’s (Federation boys), Abigail Blair of Kenmore/Grand Island (Federation girls) and Ray Wasielewski of City Honors/Cardinal O’Hara (Club).
Team of the year: Niagara County (Federation girls hockey).
Non-high school award winners honored at the dinner included Meg Gifford, who received the Hasek’s Heroes Lifetime Achievement Award for the tireless work she has done as a volunteer so that others could experience the game of hockey.
The Cazenovia Under-14 Lady Chiefs earned the Hasek’s Heroes Youth Hockey Impact Award.
The Fred Korey Award, which goes to the individual that best represents the mission of Hasek’s Heroes, was captured by 12-year-old Faustin Ushindi. A native of Congo whose family moved to Western New York two years ago, in that short time he has picked up the game. He's become so good that he made his first two travel teams last year, just eight months after initially putting on a pair of skates.