DeKALB – Sean Conlon grew up playing ice and roller hockey in Chicago. When he came to the DeKalb area to attend Kishwaukee College, he played inline roller hockey to support himself.
“I played in different leagues and tournaments, working with leagues and companies,” he said. “It’s how I put myself through college.”
Conlon, 27, still plays roller hockey, now as a forward with the Chi-Town Shamrocks, a member of the 12-team Midwest Inline Hockey Association. In the team’s four years of existence, it has made it to nationals every year and had four league MVPs, Conlon said.
Conlon sat down with MidWeek editor and hockey fan Dana Herra to talk hockey.
MidWeek: How did the Shamrocks start?
Sean Conlon: About six years ago, there was a Play It Again Sports store out here, and they sponsored the first team, which was like a junior division, for 21 and younger. Then it went on hiatus for a year, and four years ago I brought it back as an adult division. Anyone 17 and older can play. I think our oldest member is 38 and our youngest is 17.
We have three teams: major, minor and junior. The major level is like your top players, then the minor is a step down from that and the junior is a step down from minor. We have about 12 guys on each team. We have some local players, but at the top level we have guys from St. Louis, Michigan, Cincinnati. The junior level team is all people from this area, and the minor team is mostly people who have lived in this area at some point; maybe who went to (Northern Illinois University).
NIU has a team, and about half of their players, if they stay in this area, end up with the Shamrocks. Right now we have seven former NIU players.
MW: How does that work, when your players are all over the place?
SC: The local players get together and practice. The YMCA has a Sunday night league, so we go to that. In top-level inline hockey, teams don’t really practice together. We’ve been together for four years now, so you kind of have an idea what that other person is going to do.
MW: Did you grow up playing hockey?
SC: I grew up in Chicago playing hockey, both inline and ice. Once I went into college, it was more beneficial for me to play inline, because I could support myself that way.
MW: Hockey was kind of a neglected sport in this area until the Blackhawks took off a few years ago. As a fan, it’s kind of nice people around here are able to talk about hockey now.
SC: Growing up in Chicago, I could go to the United Center, buy an $8 ticket with my student ID, and sit anywhere I wanted, because there was nobody there. I sat right behind the glass for $8. The price of standing-room tickets for last year’s finals was around $500. It’s amazing.
You used to never see anybody wearing Blackhawks stuff. MC Sports hardly even carried it. Now they have a whole section, almost as big as the Bears section.
MW: Tell me about the Shamrocks’ charity game.
SC: We do a charity game every year. We get all three teams together and (select the game team) draft-pick style. One year we did it for Wounded Warrior Project; last year we did Family Service Agency. We suggest a donation of $5, we play it at the YMCA, and it’s just a fun event for everybody and for a good cause.
For people out here, our family and friends, our closes home games are in Homer Glen, so this is a chance for them to come out and see us play.
MW: Why so far?
SC: No place around here is equipped to handle what we do, with locker rooms, seating and everything. The league works out with the rinks what works for them.
MW: Explain how competition works.
SC: In a weekend, X number of teams will go to the same place and play. For example, say we’re going to play Pittsburgh. Instead of us traveling to Pittsburgh and then them traveling here, we’ll both travel to Grand Rapids. Each event is its own tournament with multiple games.
We have won 11 regional tournaments. Two years ago, our minor team won nationals, and the year before that our major team finished first runner-up.
MW: Where does the money come from for all this league travel?
SC: We are completely self-funded. We have some sponsors, and we make up the difference to pay for our own hotels, travel, whatever is left. Some players are sponsored, others pay 100 percent of everything. Nobody makes money on this; it’s something we do for the love of the game.
Hockey is unlike any other sport. You can be going hard at each other on the rink, practically killing each other, and after the game sit down together and have a beer like nothing happened. I’ve played other sports, and they’ve never been like that. What happens in the rink stays in the rink.
We’ve had people in their 30s say, I thought I was done, but here they have a home to play. A lot of them have families, and they kind of appreciate being able to go away for two days and hang out with guys.
For us, you could be the best player in the world, but if you’re causing problems, well, chemistry has to be No. 1. I’ve had to make difficult decisions before. ...In a lot of organizations, the people on the top team think so much less of the people on the junior team. If you go to our games, people on all teams are there in the stands cheering each other on. We have good chemistry from top to bottom. I’ve seen guys have issues with money to make a trip and someone else will step up and say, ‘I’ve got him for this weekend.’ It’s like a family away from your family.
MW: Where did the name come from?
SC: The Play It Again Sports team was the Shamrocks, and there were some jerseys left over. When you’re starting a new organization, jerseys are a huge cost. And I’m Irish. We liked Chicago Shamrocks, but there was a lacrosse team out of Hoffman Estates that was the Chicago Shamrocks. We tossed around Windy City, but Chi-Town had a ring to it, and it’s unique.