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Co-op high school hockey trending in Connecticut

Updated 3:40 pm, Monday, March 18, 2013
  • The Staples-Weston-Shelton boys hockey team celebrates after beating Windsor-East Granby-Avon in the Division III state semifinals at Yale's Ingalls Rink in March 2011. Staples is one of a growing number of co-op hockey teams in Connecticut. Photo: Christian Abraham, ST / Connecticut Post
    The Staples-Weston-Shelton boys hockey team celebrates after beating Windsor-East Granby-Avon in the Division III state semifinals at Yale's Ingalls Rink in March 2011. Staples is one of a growing number of co-op hockey teams in Connecticut. Photo: Christian Abraham, ST

 

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On a chilly night late February, two of the last of their breed met in Shelton.

It was the end of the regular season for Masuk hockey, which still had the conference and state playoffs to go after a 3-0 win. Barlow had a game the next night, beating Housatonic/Northwest Regional/Wamogo for its fourth win with a young team.

Of the 15 teams that the CIAC classified as Division III, Masuk and Barlow were two of the three that represented only one school.

"It's definitely a lot of work to keep us independent," Barlow coach Pete Maxfield said.

Though few schools have completely dropped hockey in recent years, enough of them have had to band together in co-ops. The number of programs competing in the CIAC has dropped about 15 percent in the past six years.

"The only way we're really keeping programs afloat is co-opping," said Rusty Granacker, coach of Brookfield/Bethel/Danbury; you can call them the BBD IceCats. "That's what a lot of schools in the area are dealing with."

The Hearst Connecticut coverage area includes eight co-ops out of 28 teams, including Staples/Weston/Shelton. The rest of the state has 13 out of 29. State-wide, that's up from 11 co-ops out of 62 teams in 2002-03 (though one addition is Fairfield Warde/Fairfield Ludlowe, which was one high school a decade ago).

Most of the top Division I teams have hung in, but in other places, it's a different story.

With numbers dwindling for many programs, even some with long and legendary histories, it has become a matter of survival, whether on their own or huddled together.

"I don't know if there's a solution to the problem," New Canaan coach Bo Hickey said. "One problem with hockey is there's not a lot of revenue generated, but there's a lot of money going out."

It's an expensive sport to play. It's a sport that has a worldwide tradition of junior clubs and youth programs, which have taken players away from high schools many places in the United States. It's a sport where prep schools have been seen as a route to college.

"Co-ops, because of the numbers and the economy, it's a matter of survival," said Milford coach Sal Follo, who is one of the coaches on the CIAC hockey committee.

"Co-ops are a necessity. Even though there are 57 teams, count the number of (schools)."

If we counted correctly, it's 94, not counting JV-only Woodstock Academy. And Follo said he hadn't heard of any schools planning to drop the sport.

"I'm not against co-ops," Masuk coach Andy Townsend said. "A team like Shepaug. Timmy Belcher (at Lyman Hall), he didn't have a team this year if he didn't co-op (with Haddam-Killingworth)."

Still, he said, he sees co-ops playing JV games and wonders.

"(The state) is so worried about losing teams," Townsend said. "They think co-ops are serving some purpose -- it's ruining the sport."

CHASING NUMBERS

Co-ops have to bring together players from different schools, coordinate the efforts of parents. Team bonding becomes important.

"As we tell them, once they put that helmet on and that jersey on, we don't care what school they're from," Granacker said.

When they added Danbury in 2008, BBD had 16 or 17 players in all. This year, with close to 15 from Danbury, they're around 30. (Masuk lists 24; Barlow, 25.) The remainder are mostly from Brookfield, though the ratio has flipped several times over the years.

A year after adding Danbury, BBD made the Division III final. It's now in Division II and has avoided losing a lot of players to prep school or junior hockey, Granacker said.

"I think our kids really enjoy playing for all our coaches. We've got a large group of coaches," he said.

The new Connecticut Oilers junior program siphoned a few players away from Fairfield County teams. Prep schools routinely take a few. Top-flight Catholic schools like Fairfield Prep and Notre Dame-Fairfield, and now St. Joseph, draw players from their local public schools.

For many teams, keeping those players is even more important. Maxfield figures Barlow's school district has five or six players dotting the rosters of the local Catholic schools. They could make a big difference for the Falcons.

Trying to keep them, he said, is a year-round job. He's calling around, seeing who may be coming up through the ranks and who may be attending the school.

"As long as I'm here, I'm going to try to remain co-opless," said Maxfield, a proud Barlow alumnus. "That's how I feel about it. It's high school hockey, not club hockey. If you've got three schools together, that's more of a club team."

Townsend teaches in Monroe and does the same as Maxfield, keeping in touch with families in elementary schools and middle schools. They may not have a town youth program, but seventh and eighth graders play together in the spring.

KEEP THEM HOME

Follo, whose roster lists 26 players fairly evenly split among three schools, said the state has to find ways to improve the game to keep players in their home programs.

He said the committee has talked about playing 17-minute periods instead of 15 minutes, and perhaps adding games to the schedule. Teams are limited to 20 in the regular season.

The state considered a 12-team elite division and two divisions below that, but it will stick with the existing three-division format for now.

"I think it's a good thing. We need to get more teams into the tournament, which is what they're trying to do," Granacker said. "This year, the way (Division II) was, it was pretty competitive top to bottom."

It was. No result was a given all year, right up to the playoffs.

"Look at Newtown, the 17th seed, knocking off Amity, No. 1," Granacker said, referring to the Nighthawks' upset win in the first round.

The tournament, actually, could be the state's biggest asset, and not just for Division II's unpredictablility. The semifinals and finals of all three divisions are played at Yale's Ingalls Rink; teams talk all year about "getting to Ingalls" (or, for some, how just getting to Ingalls isn't enough).

"The high school tournament at Yale, I think, it's the best in Connecticut (high schools), the atmosphere, a sold-out venue," said Townsend, who'd love to see a reborn Connecticut Classic -- top state teams against other top New England teams, at Yale -- and more holiday tournaments like the one at West Haven this year.

"We've got to do more to entice kids to stay, that you don't have to go to prep school to play (college) club hockey anyway."

Prep school is expensive, too -- not that staying home isn't.

"A lot of programs are pay-to-play," Follo said. "We're $850. I've heard of programs charging $1,500, $1,900. We're pretty fortunate."

With costs around $1,600, Granacker said, "You're not just going to get a kid who says `I want to play hockey this year.'"

Get him on the team, get him equipped, get him trained, and a player still needs a place to play.

"A football team can train in a gym, a parking lot, even a tennis court," Hickey said. "A hockey team has one venue, and it's $400 an hour."

TEAMED UP

The 2007-08 CIAC preseason information packet divided 66 programs into three divisions. But before the season began, Rockville and Manchester, struggling for numbers, formed a co-op.

It's a turning point in a couple of ways: The state hasn't matched 66 teams again, and that Rockville/Manchester team won the Division III state championship. (It was generally credited as the first co-op champion, though Suffield had players from other schools on its 2000 title team, as the Hartford Courant noted back then.)

The trend began. The next year, Hall teamed up with two-year-old Southington, and other co-ops added schools to their mixes. A year later, venerable Immaculate had to team up with New Fairfield. The year after that, Avon folded into Windsor, Shelton (remnant of Wilbur Cross) into Staples/Weston, St. Bernard into NFA.

And then in 2011-12, Enfield teamed up with crosstown rival Fermi, while Farmington joined the Windsor/Avon co-op.

Two schools that had helped produce NHL players, Enfield (with Craig Janney and possibly, soon, Ottawa draft pick Robbie Baillargeon) and Farmington (Anaheim's Nick Bonino), were no longer their own programs.

"When you think about it, it's sad," Townsend said. "Fermi/Enfield used to be two teams. Now they can't support one, and they have other teams."

From that peak of 66, there are 57 programs this season. That includes 21 co-ops.

And those 21 include "BCR." It's a rough merger of Bolton/Coventry/Lyman Memorial and the Rockville portion of Rockville/Manchester/Stafford.

Manchester was left to drift off to join Newington/Berlin. Stafford was appended to Fermi/Enfield/East Granby.

"There were a couple of programs cut loose: They had players, and where were those players going to go?" Follo said.

"They approved for one year adding a fourth team to a co-op (the limit is three) just to help those kids who were going to be seniors. We don't want any schools to be left out. That's my thought."

mfornabaio@ctpost.com; http://twitter.com/fornabaioctp; http://blog.connpost.com/fornabaio

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