Wheaton’s Frozen Chosen: Jake Rhoads
By Abram Erickson
To spend an hour in conversation with Jake Rhoads is a lesson in motion. Although hockey players are often stereotyped as toothless brutes, I can see why Jake thrives on the ice. In the rink he’s nimble; perpetually moving, changing direction in the blink of an eye, gliding across the frozen surface. In conversation, he’s no different.
One moment he’s reclining on a couch, then suddenly he springs forward. He rests his elbows on his knees with hands wildly gesticulating, that spark of ingenuity twinkling in his eye. So swift are his movements, it seems he may spill his tea, melting the sheet of ice I imagine he’s skating on.
At other times Jake is thoughtful, even pensive. When he finds the right words, they fly out of his mouth with the impact of a perfectly placed slap-shot.
It’s this keen sense of self-awareness that has guided Jake on and off the ice during his three years at Wheaton College. Joining the Wheaton Club Hockey Team as a freshman has proved one of the most rewarding experiences of his college career, and when I talked to him at the close of this season, he told me he hopes there’s room next year for one last extra-special ride.
Hockey has played a large role in the entirety of Jake Rhoads’ life. However, a three-year hiatus during high school left him without much thought of playing the game at the next level.
“Coming into Wheaton, I honestly had no plans of playing,” he said. “But I brought my hockey stick. And on one day I go out onto my freshman floor… and C-Train is there.”
Clarence Edwards, affectionately known as C-Train, struck up a conversation with Jake. As the general manager of the Wheaton Hockey Team, he saw an opportunity to boost the team’s flagging numbers.
“Here’s what’s going to happen, we have a club fair tomorrow and I’m going to tell the captain you’re coming, and you just stop by the table,” Jake recalls Edwards telling him. Within the week, Jake was skating with the team at practice.
Expectations left unmet
Going into the season, Jake knew the reputation that Wheaton Hockey holds to many students on campus. “We never really have the funds going into the program, nor the guys, or the resources,” he said. “We’re not really known as winners; if anything else, we’re kind of known as the losers of Wheaton athletics.”
As expected, Jake’s freshman year was an unsuccessful season in the win-loss column. What was unexpected, however, were some unforeseen challenges off the ice as well.
The team managed to eke out one win during the season, but something within the team left something to be desired for Jake. Relationships between the younger players and some of the senior members of the team didn’t flourish in the way he had hoped. However, that didn’t stop him from taking something away from the experience.
“Hockey my freshman year really opened my eyes to a lot of challenges I was facing,” Jake says. He describes the season as a time of personal growth “in terms of how I viewed myself, as an individual and on a team, and what that looked like in terms of playing well with others.”
Moving into his sophomore year, Jake was hoping for increased success on the ice, but more importantly, a better team experience. However, with six graduating seniors leaving the team, both of these goals seemed fairly unlikely.
The team began the season with ten skaters and two goalies on the roster, the absolute minimum number of players needed to field a hockey team. With a much less experienced team on the ice, the team did struggle winning games, and this forced older players on the team, even those with only one year of experience, like Jake, to step up and play a larger role than ever.
Unfortunately, the team played through the season without winning a game, which was disappointing considering Jake’s preseason goal. But once again, he found a silver lining within the struggle, and most importantly, an opportunity to grow.
“Sophomore year was a lot of initiative, and you’re doing the grunt work because we only have 10 skaters,” Jake explained. “You’re probably not going to win, but you get it done and you play with a whole big heart.”
An unexpected and unprecedented change came after Jake’s sophomore year, which infused new life into the program. Jake equates its impact to a caffeine pill that supplied their team with the jolt of energy they needed to keep the program alive.
Against all odds, Wheaton Hockey, a team with one win in the two previous seasons combined, welcomed 10 new freshmen into the program. In defiance of all of the norms of college athletics, the new players weren’t drawn to join the team due to the success of the program; instead, the community created by the players, coaches, and fans led to this revival.
The 10 new freshmen clearly rejuvenated the team, but there were still plenty of moments of adjustment after adding so many young players to the roster. Jake quickly found himself searching for how he could best benefit his new teammates. “Junior year has been so dynamic in terms of building my fellow teammates up, now having more of a senior role on the team as a junior,” Jake explains.
And while that may have meant stepping off of the ice more often than last year, Jake was happy to take that time to invest in his new teammates. While the upperclassmen led by example, Wheaton’s younger players flourished. One player, in particular, freshman Peter Engelking, even placed second in the conference in scoring.
Most impressive of all, the Thunder won three games during the season, qualifying them for the conference playoffs for the first time in six years. By all accounts, the 2019 season was a rousing success.
Unfortunately, the team didn’t advance past the first round. But Jake is still confident in their ability to make a deeper run next year. Losing two key seniors, the Thunder will once again look to dig deep to overcome the next challenge they face. And Jake will keep doing what he’s done for the past three years: find a way to contribute, embrace the role he’s given, and keep improving himself to the benefit of the team.
An experience of growth
Under close inspection, a common thread weaves its way throughout the story of Jake Rhoads’ Wheaton Hockey experience. Amid challenges and underachievement, new hopes and a breakout season, Jake’s enthusiasm for the program and his drive to get better has never wavered.
“If you know me, I’m big on personal growth and personal reform,” Jake says. Insightfully, he’s discovered the way he has grown the most throughout his time on the team is by “taking this core principle of myself and translating that to the ice and saying, ‘Hey coach, how can I work better on this.’ And having the humility to ask ‘where am I screwing up?’ Let’s work on that and let’s get better.”
As our time together drew to a close, I could visualize Jake’s postgame routine in the way his movement slowed. Suddenly the speed of the nimble skater, used to flitting around the frozen surface, slowed to a soft glide. The energy spent pushing himself up and down the ice began to fade away, like the final strips of snow cleared by the Zamboni.
With the patience of an athlete who unlaces his skates to step off the ice, he finishes his now-lukewarm tea, leans his head on the couch, and closes his eyes.
“It’s known around our conference,” he summarizes, “that Wheaton Hockey has the biggest heart when it comes to the play. We’re not always very good, but we always give our best, and that respect and that honor; along with that character we have, means more to us than any amount of wins could.”
However, with a year like this behind them, and with the help of players like Jake Rhoads, what’s known around the conference might just be in for a change.
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Photo Credit: Jake Rhoads