An abiding passion for hockey propelled John Conenna to the pinnacle of the sport in Illinois.
From standout grade-school goalie to stellar high school coach to Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, John Conenna has excelled at every local level of the sport.
The soon-to-be-60-year-old travel agency owner was bitten by the hockey bug when he was only 8. “I used to watch a group of boys in my neighborhood play street hockey outside my window,” Conenna says. “I figured I’d tag along and try it and I was hooked.”
His choice of positions was influenced by the play of legendary Chicago Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito. “When he skated out and took control of the net, I knew at that very moment I would strive to be the best goalie,” Conenna recalls.
And his passion for the sport was fueled by the friends he made while playing it, including Don Ciochon and John Socha, and in particular Ron Glaubitz. “He was the goaltender who was my rival. He pushed me to another level,” Conenna explains. “Every night I had to prepare for him. He brought out the best in me.”
Another huge influence was his first coach, Stan Gialo, who led the Harwood Heights Bruins from 1972 to 1976. “He was such a fun-loving family guy who loves playing hockey and seeing everyone develop into better players,” Conenna shares.
But his biggest influence was his father. “My dad was a workaholic and he gave me this great work ethic that I put toward the game,” Conenna reveals.
The Bruins went to the 1976 championship with Conenna in goal, and he continued his standout play in high school under another dynamic Italian American, head coach Jimmy Nardella of the Holy Cross Crusaders. “He was a very aggressive, motivational type of coach and a real inspiration to me,” Conenna says.
Conenna was staunch in the net throughout his high school career, helping to propel the Crusaders to the state finals in 1978.
His collegiate run was cut short by a knee injury, but his years as a goalie prepared him for life as a coach. “I saw the game from the net,” he explains. “I could really visualize who was in position, who was working, and it really gave me a good perspective on the game.”
Conenna cut his coaching teeth at Holy Cross, working with the goalies for Nardella’s Crusaders.
As the head coach of the Northwest Chargers from 1993 to 2003, he guided his team to several first place finishes in the Northern Illinois Hockey League as well as one trip to the state finals.
And he took the Conant Cougars to the final four during a 12-year stint as head coach that earned him the following praise from the president of the Conant Hockey Club at the time: “Your hard work and complete dedication have elevated your program to one of the most respected high school clubs in Illinois,” Mark Barbera wrote in a commemorative book assembled when Conenna retired. “The lives of these players have been changed in a positive way that no other coach could have ever done.”
Conenna won Coach of the Year honors twice during his storied run, but his proudest moments in the sport came while coaching his son, Vince, at DePaul, and watching from the stands as his daughter, Julianna, danced for the Blackhawks. “And I have to give credit to my wife, Connie,” Conenna adds. “She was my rock throughout all this.”
Now, Conenna will be one of five coaches inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame on Jan. 26 at Belvedere Banquets in Elk Grove Village. (847-269-2922)
“I remember my roots of those days playing with my friends,” Conenna says of his most recent honor. “To get to this, it’s a dream I never thought could happen.”
The above appears in the January 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.