Sandholm fitting fine in Stevenson's big picture
Elias Sandholm transferred a year ago to Stevenson, where more than 4,000 students attend classes. He arrived from Stockholm, Sweden, where he attended a school of about 300 students.
"It has been good, so far," Sandholm said. "Everyone has been great. I could not ask for anything more."
Well, yes, he is asking for a bit more, as are his hockey teammates. They want a state tournament run this March that would put Stevenson on the ice at the United Center to capture the school's first hockey state championship.
The No. 3-ranked Patriots are 40-12-2 overall, 12-4-0-1 in the competitive Scholastic Hockey League, which features the top teams in Illinois, including two-time defending state champion New Trier Green.
The Patriots were riding a six-game winning streak in late December until the Trevians ended it with a 6-2 win on Dec. 29 in the championship game of the 24th annual Chicago Blackhawks Charities Holiday Hockey Classic in Bensenville. It marked Stevenson's first appearance in the finals of this prestigious tournament.
Sandholm, a senior, is one of the main reasons optimism is as strong as a slap shot from the team's leading scorer, Jackson Leptich, who has 54 goals in 53 games. Sandholm carries a 16-5-1 record and .930 save percentage in 25 games.
"We have a great team, the best team in the state," said Sandholm, 18, who lives in Hawthorn Woods. "The team just keeps surprising me with what we can accomplish. We can compete and win against anyone."
In the semifinals of the Blackhawks Charities tournament, the Patriots stopped No. 4-ranked Saint Viator, 5-0. Also in December, the Patriots defeated perennial powers York, Barrington, Glenbrook North, Notre Dame, Providence Catholic and, yes, even New Trier Green.
"We have a great core group that has been competing at the varsity level for a long time, and they know what it takes to win the big games," Sandholm said. "One thing this team (has) that I have never really seen on a team before is, (a) specific role that each player seems to have. Everyone knows what is expected of them, what they have to do, and how to do it."
Trevor Hilt is alongside Leptich as one of the team's go-to goal-scorers. He has 48 goals, 33 assists in 54 games. Michael Dowd and Adam Offenbach are the Patriots' top playmakers, with 44 and 39 assists, respectively.
Sandholm said the team has taken to its bilingual-speaking goalie "better than I could have ever imagined … (the team is) a great group of guys that (has) treated me in the best possible way. I could not ask for more."
There are, though, differences from life in Sweden. He now lives in the suburbs, not a major city. He takes all of his classes in English. And he plays on a smaller rink than he's accustomed to.
When asked what he likes best about playing for Stevenson, he simply said, the people he's met -- teammates, coaches and parents, "a great group of people that I really enjoy spending time together with."
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Sandholm is a big, quick and acrobatic goalie who always appears calm, despite being peppered with slap shots from some of the best players in the state.
"On the ice, I try to communicate to the best of my abilities and move the puck to help out in the defensive zone," said Sandholm, who played in the highest league in the greater Stockholm area. "I think I bring a different view of the game, both on and off the ice, and a unique playing style. Thanks to my time back in Sweden, I carry over a lot of various hockey and leadership experiences that many on the team have not gotten the opportunity to possess."
Stevenson coach Tom Wood said Sandholm has been a "great addition" to the team.
"For a kid to move to another country at 17, it had to be difficult, yet exciting for him," Wood said. "He gets along great with the other guys and his play on the ice has been outstanding. His ability to play the puck is phenomenal, and he is very agile in the net for such a big kid."
• Here are the Top 20 Rankings of Illinois High School Hockey Teams (as of Dec. 30), as compiled by Ross Forman:
1. Loyola Gold
2. New Trier Green
4. Saint Viator
5. Glenbrook North
6. Glenbrook South
7. Providence Catholic
8. Benet Academy
9. New Trier White
10. St. Ignatius
12. Highland Park
17. Notre Dame
20. St. Rita