Will hockey be iced at GCSD?
The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Rough stuff: Mohonasen senior Ryan McCrum, left, checks Niskayuna/Schenectady’s Joe Christie during a hockey game on Jan.14 at Union College. Guilderland/Mohonasen/Scotia-Glenville lost, 14 to 1, falling to 0-9 on the season. The Storm had only 11 skaters and one goalie this season, finishing 0-15, and giving up 128 more goals than it scored.
The Guilderland hockey team, which added Mohonasen a few years ago, and included Scotia-Glenville for this season, hasn’t won a game — or gotten close to winning — in two years. As Guilderland discusses the district’s 2014-15 budget, varsity ice hockey is mentioned for possible elimination, which would save the district $7,000.
The Storm’s struggle hints at a bigger problem: Fewer and fewer athletes are playing high school hockey each year.
Many hockey players in the area choose to play for teams in junior or travel leagues or for private schools like Albany Academy where there’s better competition and more games.
This season, Guilderland/Mohonasen/Scotia-Glenville had 11 skaters and one goaltender. Typically, for a hockey team to be fully-functional, it should have at least 20 skaters and two goalies. The Storm finished the 2013-14 regular season at 0-15, giving up 143 goals and scoring just 15.
Queensbury (5-15), the second-to-last team in the Capital District High School Hockey League standings, gave up 71 fewer goals than Guilderland this season. However, the Storm didn’t have enough players to seriously compete.
“They see how we struggle, and we’ve taken a hit trying to build this team,” said Jonathan Phillips, the booster club president for Guilderland hockey; he has two sons on the team. “It’s a shame because it would be better if we had more support.”
Guilderland’s athletic director, Regan Johnson, said that a vote went through last fall to add Scotia-Glenville to the Guilderland/Mohonasen in hopes of maintaining the hockey team. But, the Storm ended up with four fewer players on the 2013-14 roster.
“It’s the kids’ choice to play for their school or not,” Johnson said. “Several kids just decided to play in other leagues.”
Phillips said that he knows of 12 players from the area who didn’t suit up for Guilderland/Mohonasen/Scotia-Glenville this season, but are playing somewhere else. The Scotia merge happened late, he said, but four players — Jimmy Brady, John Dean, Chase Howard, and Tyler Popp — were able to join the team.
“Some Mohonasen guys had already decided not to return,” Phillips said. “Then, the merge happened, and we called up some other kids, but they already committed elsewhere.”
The big picture
According to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, the number of hockey teams and players has been dropping. Here are the figures from the last four years, starting with the 2009-10 season:
— 2009-10; 188 teams; 3,743 players;
— 2010-11; 181 teams; 3,624 players;
— 2011-12; 174 teams; 3,487 players; and
— 2012-13; 150 teams; 2,806 players.
“High school hockey in New York State has experienced a decline in recent years, many of the factors relating to cost of ice time, equipment, and management of games,” said Joe Altieri, Director of Marketing and Media Relation for NYSPHSAA. “We are hopeful that the interest returns to hockey soon and schools are able to find a mechanism to fund the sport.”
There are few schools left in New York that fully fund hockey, Altieri said. Phillips said that the Guilderland players and their families each paid at least $900 this season. It can cost $18,000 for a rink to open its doors to one school for a season; the Storm doesn’t have a rink, so the team plays at Union College.
Since many school budgets have been cut in recent years, a team’s booster club shoulders most of the cost for ice rentals. Also, afternoon or evening ice time isn’t always available, so late-night practices are common for high school teams.
“The ice time is split between the parents and the budget,” Johnson said of Guilderland’s funding. “Some days, the kids aren’t skating.”
The reduction of games played in a season, which happened a few years ago, is another factor that has killed high school hockey. The number of maximum games each season went from 24 to 20. The high school hockey season lasts four months; prep and club seasons last longer and have more games.
“That’s four more chances to play,” said Johnson. “There are plenty of hockey players, but not for high school. We’re up against it. Everywhere.”
The Capital District High School Hockey League has 11 teams, 215 skaters, and 29 goaltenders. That means each team would have an average of 19.5 skaters and 2.5 goalies, but, obviously, the numbers vary from team to team. Glens Falls/Hudson Falls/South Glens Falls has 29 skaters and six goalies, and five teams have less than 20 skaters.
Even with the largest roster, GF/HF/SGF finished with a 4-15-2 record this season. A few years ago, Glens Falls’s hockey team wasn’t merged with Hudson Falls and South Glens Falls, but won more games.
Johnson told The Enterprise that there’s a team in Syracuse that combines 10 different high schools. “You can have enough players and still be beaten badly,” he said. “It’s not about wins, it’s about life lessons and perseverance.”
“Just a rough patch”
There were times this season when the Storm had only nine skaters for a game, Phillips said. His son, Tyler, a senior at Guilderland, dropped back to play some defense this year despite usually playing forward before. Guild/Mohon/S-G players logged three- to four-minute shifts this season when its opponent’s lines were skating half that.
“It’s not OK, but these kids aren’t going to cry,” said Phillips. “It’s easy to quit when there’s barely a team, but they dealt with it and skated anyway. It’s about commitment, and these kids tried to laugh, win, and have a good time.”
The closest the Storm got to a win was a 5-to-2 loss to Burnt Hills/Ballston Spa on Dec. 20, but, even then, Guild/Mohon/S-G was down, 3 to 0, after two periods.
Johnson said that he’s had several meetings with Head Coach Ed Koivula about how to better market the team, and that there has been no talk about getting rid of the hockey program. “We don’t think in the negative,” he said. “We’re not going to throw the white flag up. It’s just a rough patch of adversity right now, and the team has to persevere.”
Koivula took the Guild/Mohon/S-G coaching position in the fall of 2012 to improve the team, Johnson said. “He’s out there talking to people, trying to sell it, but it hasn’t really happened,” he said. “The team plays hard, but they have to dig deep, and work a little harder to get more players.”
Koivula declined to talk to The Enterprise for this story.
At the beginning of the season, the Storm played defending state champion Saratoga, and scored two goals in the first period. However, the team went on to lose, 19 to 2.
“Losing is hard, but winning is easy,” Phillips said. “No one ever complains when they’re winning.”
Phillips said that the last two seasons have been a “major struggle” for Guild/Mohon/S-G, and that most coaches would have walked, but Koivula is still sticking with the team. The Storm will know more about its future after it talks to more hockey players in the offseason. Guilderland’s superintendent presents her 2014-15 school budget proposal to the school board on Feb. 27, and voters have their say in May.
In giving their views last week on proposed budget cuts, several school board members said they wouldn’t object to cutting hockey but most were insistent on keeping assistant coaches for other sports; both items were among the 5-percent across-the-board cuts school leaders were asked to propose to close a $1.8 million budget gap.
“It seems pretty hard to get 20 skaters, but it’s not impossible,” Phillips said. “We need information from the people out there. What do these kids want, and is it enough to get them on our team?”
Most of the time, people just see the Storm’s winless record and lopsided scores. The team doesn’t have much appeal to hockey players in the area, and has lost former players.
“If we were undefeated, yeah, everyone would want to play for us,” said Phillips. “The concern is with getting through a full season.”
Tyler Phillips, who started playing on the team when it was just Guilderland, wrote college essays about his commitment to a losing hockey team, and Mr. Phillips says that colleges keep ringing him up. Tyler Phillips could have played for another team, but he believed skating for his school was the right thing to do.
“It’s so easy to make decisions for yourself, but these kids have learned from defeat,” Mr. Phillips said.
USA Hockey’s annual public membership statistics say that hockey participation is up 14.3 percent nationally over the last decade, and 9.5 percent in the past five years. The same can’t be said for high school hockey in New York State.
For Guilderland, merging with Mohonasen and Scotia-Glenville hasn’t been the answer. The team knows the names of the kids who play hockey in the area, but will they come out for the school team?
“They have to respect our will to keep trying,” said Phillips. “But, the kids might walk away anyways. We can’t be naïve.”