IMHO: NHIAA should make a split decision on girls hockey

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover High girls hockey coach John Dodds. (Valley News file photograph)

Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, April 13, 2019

Rick Bolduc didn’t like the idea. His ego wasn’t fond of it, either. And it took a good while for him to realize splitting NHIAA boys hockey into two divisions was the right call.

In the mid-1990s, Granite State high school boys hockey consisted of one division, 17 schools and a wide range of abilities from the top of the ladder to the bottom. Only a handful of schools had a legitimate shot of winning a state title back then, and Bolduc’s Lebanon Raiders weren’t one of them.

“Back then, when it happened, it stung a little bit,” Bolduc recently recalled of the split, which happened prior to the 1994-95 season. “But over time, all of the teams got very competitive. And at the point where we were seven or eight years into it, the top five teams in Division II were better than the bottom five in Division I.

“It enhanced competition. It brought new teams in and helped players jump into the sport.”

The same conditions that led to dividing boys hockey then are beginning to hold for NHIAA girls hockey now. The state association hasn’t discussed the thought of splitting the sport yet, but the time has come for the conversations to start.

New Hampshire’s girls just completed their strongest season in 12 years of state sanctioning, at least from a membership standpoint. Nine schools, including one co-operative program, took the ice for the first NHIAA girls hockey campaign in 2007; a total of 16 (seven of them co-ops) suited up this past winter.

As was the case with the boys years ago, there is a large gap from best to worst. The hands-down top program in New Hampshire, Hanover, has to go out of the state to build a challenging schedule. At the bottom, six schools lost at least six games by six goals, the margin at which on-ice officials institute a running clock. All 16 of Manchester Central’s contests last winter went to running time; 15 were losses.

Coaches notice these things.

“For someone starting out (who) doesn’t have a huge support system in the youth leagues coming up, it may be more encouraging to jump in at Division II and not have to play a lot of the teams that they aren’t going to be competitive with,” said Hanover coach John Dodds, whose Marauders have won 10 straight NHIAA championships and 11 of the 12 awarded since the start of state recognition. “That might be more encouraging to them.

“I think (a split) is going to happen. I don’t know if we’re talking about it yet.”

NHIAA hockey committee chairman Peter Wotton, the athletic director at Dover High, hasn’t heard much in the way of chatter on the topic.

“Obviously, there are concerns about competitiveness in some games,” Wotton said in a phone interview last week. “I think taking a 16-team division and dividing it into two eight-team divisions provides its own challenges. You’re looking at seven other opponents in your division that you’re playing twice, and you still must pick upwards of four more games. If someone has a thought on that, I would welcome that and entertain that.”

I accept.

This past season’s final standings reveal a clear separation of the haves and have-nots in NHIAA girls hockey. None of the top eight teams last season lost more than one running-time game. You know about the bottom six.

Furthermore, there was a better than even chance that an NHIAA girls hockey game wasn’t going to be competitive. An accounting of last winter’s schedule found that of the 141 regular-season games played, 73 were decided by six or more goals. That’s nearly 52 percent. That’s not competitive.

Where the notion of a split gets mushy is with the two teams stuck in the middle. Bishop Guertin, a Nashua-based Catholic school, can and does recruit; it can improve its fortunes quickly by enticing the right athletes through its doors.

Lebanon doesn’t have such a luxury, although establishing cooperative relationships with Stevens and Kearsarge improved the Raiders’ fortunes last winter. If Brad Shaw was still Lebanon’s coach, he’d want to be aligned with the NHIAA’s top division, even at the expense of the occasional rout.

“Any team out there in our situation, if they’re a 6-7-8 team, would rather play Hanover 10 times and lose, 10-0, that play some of those other teams where you stop shooting in the first period,” said Shaw, who recently stepped down from Lebanon after 10 seasons on the bench and whose team was 4-3 in six-goal games. “Personally, that’s me. Other coaches I’ve talked to feel the same way: if it’s competitive, like the boys, where the drop-off isn’t drastic. The girls’ drop-off is drastic.”

The bottom six teams in NHIAA girls hockey — Pinkerton, Keene-Monadnock-Fall Mountain, Bedford, ConVal-Conant, Central and Kingswood — went a combined 12-61 in six-goal contests last season. That’s a .164 winning percentage. That’s not competitive, either.

New Hampshire girls hockey doesn’t have broad statewide support at the youth level. Only three programs — Hanover, Concord and Seacoast — fielded Tier II girls squads last winter, the highest level offered by the New Hampshire Amateur Hockey Association. (The Hanover Hockey Association reportedly has more girls than boys in its skating ranks.) Prep schools and year-round private programs have siphoned off a fair portion of Granite State talent off the top for years as well; with identical rules up through age 12, boys and girls more often learn the game together at the youth level than in gender-separate situations.

“It would make things more competitive; we could play more games at a higher level,” Hanover’s Dodds said. “If we could play more of those meaningful games, it would benefit us. Games against the ConVals and Manchester Centrals, I don’t think they’re good for either team.”

The split of boys hockey didn’t come about because youth programs were clamoring for it. The NHIAA made the move to draw new schools to the sport. It worked, and boys hockey is significantly stronger because of it: A total of 42 squads in three divisions hit the ice for NHIAA boys hockey last winter.

“Hockey is different than in other sports,” longtime Hanover High boys hockey coach Dick Dodds said. “It’s more the feeder system. (Splitting) allowed the newer teams that weren’t quite as good to have a little more exposure playing and not worrying about getting whacked. For the boys, it was way better for the overall development of our league.”

Boys hockey shows the good things that could happen if the NHIAA decides to split things up the girls.

The NHIAA need not be fixated on the notion of double-digit membership in any division of any sport. It doesn’t have to draw a line right down the middle; an 8-8 split for girls hockey would work, but so would a 10-6 or 6-10. It’s about creating better competition — and a better experience — for athletes.

Even with a split, it’s not likely that the NHIAA would ever have to worry about 40-plus girls hockey programs, either. Be it cost or demographics or something else, kids aren’t gravitating toward the ice as much as in the past. But it’s unlikely the sport will grow much more without help from the top.

The NHIAA is in a position to effect positive change in a game it was initially slow to support. A split won’t happen immediately — the state is in the middle of a two-year scheduling cycle — but it should happen eventually. Targeting 2020-21 would be a laudable goal.

He’s long since finished his Lebanon High coaching days, but Bolduc can see the result of multi-divisional NHIAA boys hockey in the rear view mirror.

“I’ve talked to some coaches that now tell me how many teams have come from small towns that would never have the programs to develop them,” Bolduc recalled. “There are a lot more kids playing now, a lot more youth programs popping up. A lot more high schools have teams. If (what they wanted) was to spread the sport and make it better, it worked.”

It’s time to start having that conversation for the girls.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.