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Don Mahler: Can Shrine Game Be Saved?

Another year, another blowout.

What can we do to save the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl from itself?

As a philanthropy, the cause of helping burned and crippled children — for free — deserves our admiration as well as our support. And that is really all that matters — doing the good work for a good cause.

But as a football game, on the other hand, things are not as worthy.

Let’s run some of the facts.

New Hampshire has won the last 13 straight games by an average margin of 36-15 — including three shutouts.

After 60 years, New Hampshire leads the series 45-13-2, holding a 27-3 edge over the past 30 years. And it hasn’t been close. Only the 2007 game, when Vermont lost, 23-20, was the outcome in doubt in the fourth quarter.

So what can we do to make the game more competitive and appealing?

Before tossing out a few ideas about what we might do to make the game more competitive and appealing, a shout out to the Vermont fans who show up every year in force and full-throated to support their guys.

But what good is it if they are leaving by the end of the third quarter?

Even with the latest selection wrinkle — choosing only six players from each division — to minimize New Hampshire’s Division I and II superiority — Vermont still gets pushed around on both sides of the ball.

Case in point was Stevens defensive end CJ Gosselin. He was in the Vermont backfield so much on Saturday that I was surprised he wasn’t wearing a green jersey by game’s end.

I really thought Vermont was on to something this year with the spread offense, a rangy quarterback and a quicker tempo aimed at slowing New Hampshire’s rush and ability to substitute.

But it never happened. The refs took so long to spot the ball that the hurry-up turned into the stand around along the line of scrimmage. And that played right into New Hampshire’s beefy hands.

So what do we do? Do you really want to dilute the Shrine Game any further by sending the D-I and D-II New Hampshire players down to the CHaD East-West game in June for a glorified scrimmage and instead playing with just the small school kids? I don’t think that’s the route we should be traveling down.

And some Vermont coaches I’ve spoken with are not all that keen on seeing New Hampshire playing with a limited roster. Their feeling is that when they beat New Hampshire, they want to do so against the best the Granite State has to offer. They don’t want a Shrine Game Lite.

Perhaps a competitive game isn’t all that important to the people in the stands. Maybe there’s something to be said for the Vermont players coming out each year and wanting to be the ones who finally beat New Hampshire. And maybe there’s something to be said for the New Hampshire kids feeling the need to rise to the challenge to make sure “they” aren’t the ones who lose the game.

But maybe 13 years is too long to wait for another Vermont victory. People are starting to get anxious, and a little apathetic — which would really be the death knell of the game if people stopped caring and giving.

It’s nobody’s fault how the game has evolved. It’s all about population, demographics and opportunity. And all those factors seem to favor New Hampshire.

After all the tweaking and rule changing we still are left with one basic fact: something’s got to give. We can’t continue within the same football paradigm.

So, let’s try something different. One idea I’ve heard is to combine the two states into a mixed 36-player team and challenge Massachusetts to a game. We’ve got the perfect field at Dartmouth College, along with the great atmosphere of a night game.

The town of Hanover opens its doors and the folks from Mass. come north to enjoy a day trip to the real New England. Plus, new blood might mean new sources of revenue to help fill those Shrine hospital coffers.

Could work. We would eliminate the selection restrictions from the New Hampshire side and pick the best 18 players from each state. And if the folks from Massachusetts are cool to the idea, why not see if Maine — which has its own Shrine game, the Lobster Bowl, every July — would take kindly to it?

The drawback is that it would end the Shrine game as we know it. Plus, it would bring 18 fewer players into the game than we have now. But you got to give to get.

OK. Here’s another thought that has gained some traction all around from football people, fans of the game and even inside the Shrine hierarchy. The idea is to select the 36 players from each state as they do now, but then mix them up and pick two teams via a draft method.

You can either pick by position — first choose all the quarterbacks, then the running backs, etc. — or player by player, alternating by state or just by ability.

And as a wrinkle, you could mix up the coaching staffs, as well.

Could work. It would create a new sense of camaraderie between the players and eliminate the blowout scenario of the past decade.

The drawback is, well, it’s not the Shrine game. It’s not Us versus Them. Instead it will be something like the Mountain team versus the Granite team — and what’s the appeal to that?

I get it. Changing the fabric of the game isn’t the best answer. But saving the game is the greater good.

As long as there are burned or crippled kids in pain or in need, this game must survive to help raise the money to continue research and treatment.

And for that reason we need to do whatever we can. If the game is more important than the score, then the kids are more important than the game.

While the game itself is 60 years old, that doesn’t mean it needs to be wedded to the way things were done back then. There needs to be young and aggressive hands at the helm with new and innovative ideas.

A game with this history and longevity should have a number of big-money sponsors to choose from to pick up some of the large cost items — like room and board at the camp ($35,000), practice gear ($7,200), the band ($15,000), the jackets ($5,200), the program ($16,000). The costs listed on the Shriune website show an outlay of more than $110,000 to put on the game each year. If the CHaD game can be bankrolled, why not the historic Shrine game?

In its history, the Shrine game has raised nearly $5 million. Every dollar that can be covered by a sponsor’s generosity is another dollar for the kids in the hospitals. Imagine how much more money could be turned over with more outside financial help.

Remember, the final score that matters most is the amount of money raised for the hospitals.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.