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Roger Brown's The State of Sports: All co-op'd up with hockey

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 14. 2018 8:48PM

Among the many emails we’ve received here at the Union Leader sports desk during the winter season was one with information about an NHIAA hockey game that had all of us in the sports department a wee bit confused. Well, at least one of us was.

In the subject line, it read: “Griffins lose close one.”

“Griffins?” Brown said to himself. “Who the heck are the Griffins?”

Turns out the ConVal/Conant boys’ and girls’ cooperative teams each call themselves the Griffins, and, as you may have noticed, cooperative teams are on the rise in this state. NHIAA hockey has more slashes than a typical horror film.

Good luck to the editors who have to write the headline when the Bishop Brady/Trinity/Manchester West girls play Keene/Monadnock/Fall Mountain.

Slashes indeed.

There are 42 NHIAA boys’ hockey teams in New Hampshire and 15 of them are cooperative ventures, including 10 of the 13 teams in Division III. Of the state’s 15 girls’ hockey programs, eight are cooperative teams. One wonders how you would hold a pep rally for one of these co-op teams, but that’s another matter for another day.

Hey, a cooperative team is certainly better than no team at all, but NHIAA hockey hasn’t always looked like this. Is the prevalence of so many cooperative teams a good thing? Or is it a sign of declining participation in the state’s high school hockey programs?

“There’s really no one answer,” said Bow coach Tim Walsh, who played hockey at Concord High School before continuing his career at the University of New Hampshire. “When I started coaching in 2001 there were no co-op teams, but a lot of these (cooperative teams) are very small schools from very small towns that don’t have booming youth hockey programs. They didn’t used to have teams at all. So more schools have hockey, but I’m not sure hockey has grown.

“There’s also the rise in full-season (junior) hockey. That, to me, is the biggest difference. You used to lose some first-line guys. Now you’re losing second-line guys and some third-line guys. You can’t play both. The NHIAA has strict rules.”

Walsh said there are four players playing junior hockey who could be skating for his team this season.

“No one is immune to it,” he said. “Everyone is losing kids to juniors. It’s a Northeast thing. Massachusetts is getting hurt by it too. Nobody is going from public high school straight to college hockey anymore. It doesn’t happen.”

Making a general statement about the current health of NHIAA hockey is difficult because it’s thriving in some places and struggling in others. Perhaps it’s not surprising to see so many cooperative teams in Division III, but it is alarming when large schools like Manchester Central, Nashua North and Nashua South have to form cooperative teams to have hockey. North teams up with Souhegan, South and Pelham have a team, and Central and West are in their first season as a cooperative team.

Central won the Division I championship in 2014. Brian Stone, who coached Central to the title that year, said he had 33 players try out for that team, and 37 players at tryouts the year before. Last year, that number was barely in double digits.

“Without West, Central wouldn’t have had a team (this season),” Stone said. “It’s survival mode.”

Stone, who is now an assistant coach at Trinity, said New Hampshire high school hockey is in jeopardy — at least in certain places.

“It’s a great conversation,” Stone said. “Places with affluent neighborhoods are where it’s solid. The inner city doesn’t have it anymore. It’s just not there. You have to have a lot of money to play.”

The NHIAA hockey landscape has certainly changed a lot in the last 10 or 15 years, and veteran coaches will tell you that the level of play isn’t as high now as it was then. What will the sport look like in another five years? No one can say for sure. We can only hope that whatever changes take place are changes for the better.

NHIAA Sports columns