Wins were sparse, but memories were plentiful.
And, yes, Niko Kakos had fun playing this season for the co-op Lake Zurich hockey team, despite its struggles on the ice.
There was laughter on the bench during games, jokes during practices. There was the traditional late-night stop at McDonald's in Rolling Meadows for Kakos and teammates after practice. There was the one game against a JV squad that Lake Zurich dominated and, thus, teammates were able to score their first high school goals.
"In the beginning (of the season), it was a little hard to handle because every team I've been on in the past has been a winning team," Kakos said. "I've never been on a team that lost so much, so it was kind of hard to grasp. Still, hockey is hockey, and it always will be fun."
Kakos can easily look past the team's winless record (1 tie) in the North Central Division and, instead, smile at other aspects of the game, things that go beyond the won-lost column. The team bonded, friendships were built and jokes told with friends while sweaty and chomping on french fries.
"This might be my last year of competitive hockey," Kakos said. "Yes, I was happy with the year. I don't regret this year, which is a good thing to say."
Kakos, a junior who lives in Hawthorn Woods, is the team's captain. The right-handed shooting center finished league play with 9 goals and 3 assists in 28 games played. Junior forward Nick Jones led Lake Zurich in scoring with 11 goals and 3 assists.
"The biggest motivation was, no matter what, I was representing my school and, in the end, I was playing with my friends," Kakos said. "Even though we lost so many games, hockey is hockey. It's always going to be fun to me."
Kakos also is a standout lacrosse player for both Lake Zurich and Niles-based Team ONE club. He's being scouted by both Division I and Division III schools for his skills on the grass.
"With the success I have (had) in lacrosse, people often told me to quit hockey, especially since the team wasn't good, to instead hone my lacrosse skills," Kakos said. "But I have this natural thing to be the best at everything. One of my goals for the season was to help make my teammates better, so they would have an experience that they could be proud of, even if it's just having fun despite all of the losses. Hockey is a brotherhood. Your teammates are your family. You can't abandon them. You have to do everything you can to help the team, to help win, at least try to excel."
Even if it's just a brief moment of stardom, a memorable play, a first goal for a teammate. Take Lake Zurich's lone win of the season, against South Elgin, 15-2.
Lake Zurich struck early, repeatedly, almost at will, so the game plan quickly changed. LZ wanted to let players score who hadn't yet. Such as defenseman Sam Morgan, a junior who was a North Central All-Star this season, but had not scored a high school goal.
Morgan ultimately scored, on an upper-corner shot. The whole team celebrated.
"That's what made that game so great," Kakos said. "This season truly gave me a better sense of why I play the game. You play the game because you love the game -- and Sam getting that goal helped remind me why I play the game. The look on his face, it was awesome. I felt like a proud parent (when he scored)."
Lake Zurich lost both playoff games in the North Central battle for the Sterling Cup and the team did not enter the state tournament. This was the team's first varsity season.
Kakos doesn't know yet if he'll return to the ice for his senior season. It just depends on his college lacrosse situation, but he said he'd "love" to be back.
"We had a lot of close games (this season)," he said. "Our biggest downfall was, we didn't play three periods of hockey."
Kakos started playing hockey when he was 4. He was on the Lake Zurich team two years ago that finished second in the state (JV) and fourth last season.
"Hockey has taught me everything I know," he said. "Every life skill that I have, I acquired through hockey, (including) how to be cooperative, team-building and more. Playing hockey helps me for lacrosse, much the way lacrosse helps me for hockey. I can't give up hockey. Even if I play college lacrosse, I will want to find a way to play hockey. I can't just give it up."
Lake Zurich coach Steve Sarauer tagged Kakos as, "a hardworking player, for sure a team leader."
"Niko was always the first one in the locker room, and he was always having fun," Sarauer said. "He was just happy to be there, happy to be on the team. Niko definitely is the type of kid you need on the team when it's a tough year like we had."
Kakos scored all 3 goals in Lake Zurich's 5-3 loss to co-op Conant in January. He tallied twice in the team's 11-4 loss to Loyola Maroon last month.
"I can't really pinpoint one personal highlight from the season," Kakos said. "The highlight truly was the overall experience."
Winning clearly isn't the only driving force for Kakos.
Miller time: Scott Miller, a forward for the co-op Libertyville Icecats and a senior at Libertyville, was named the Illinois High School Hockey League sportsman of the year, as voted by North Central Division coaches.
"I can't remember the last time an Icecat won a league award, so this is quite an accomplishment by Scott," said Jamie Dobson, team president.
Miller had 14 goals and 16 assists in 30 league games this season. Libertyville was 11-12-7 in league play.