Co-ops continue to stress the importance of high school hockey programs

GREATER FLINT AREA — High school hockey, one of the most expensive sports to take part in, continues to be a viable option for schools because of co-operative agreements. As school enrollment numbers continue to drop across the state and sub-varsity programs go dark or close up shop altogether, kids are still able to play for a high school team, even if it isn’t theirs.

Readers of the County Press and its sister papers in the View Newspaper Group in Genesee County will see more changes in the local hockey co-ops this season, as Lapeer is no longer a standalone program and the Alliance has folded. Part of those changes comes from the closure of the Polar Palace Arena Complex in Lapeer in April, which was home ice for both Lapeer and the Alliance. Lapeer is now the primary of the co-op that includes its players, along with those from North Branch, LakeVille and Imlay City. The Alliance players that were from Goodrich will now skate for the Flushing co-op that also includes kids from Swartz Creek High. The Kearsley, Brandon, Holly, Lake Fenton co-cop will be dark for the second year and the newly-formed Eastern Thumb Area Legion that includes kids from Bad Axe, Croswell-Lexington, Deckerville, Elkton-Pigeon-Lake Port, Marlette, Sandusky and Ubly and will be an opponent for the new-look co-ops.

The co-ops are good news as far as the schools and the Michigan High School Athletic Association are concerned. Seventy five percent of college players come from Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts according to Cody Inglis, Assistant Director, Director of Hockey for the MHSAA.

Michigan has approximately 340 co-ops in all sports with 59 in high school hockey as of March 2019. Tom Rashid, Executive Director for the MHSAA said “co-ops have clearly made a difference”. Rashid said that between the co-ops across the state close to 210-schools are able to provide high school hockey. Michigan also has 80 standalone high school hockey programs, including Grand Blanc and Davison in our coverage areas.

“Our co-ops increase participation and enrollments combine, so Div. 1 is heavy with cooperative programs,” Rashid said. “The divisions may be looked at in different years going forward because of the large number in Div. 1, but generally the co-ops are about generating opportunities for kids, not necessarily success. Co-ops are formed under a number of difference reasons such as lack of sports choices at a specific school, lack of numbers, or in some cases, no available ice arenas nearby schools.

Rashid also noted that no co-opted high school program has ever won a state finals, so the perception that co-ops are merely there to build super teams is false. He pointed out that Rochester Adams and Traverse City St. Francis recently qualified for a state finals, but lost the title games.

“Hockey is an expensive sport,” stressed Rashid. “We are glad that our rules have been flexible enough to accommodate the interest in hockey. We hope that more and more schools will see increased numbers and allow them to offer their own programs. Right now it’s not quite half of our member schools that offer high school hockey, but that’s okay. We are in a constant mode of looking at policies, regulations and co-operative agreements and seeing if they are matched properly.”

Inglis said that by his numbers, 215 schools are represented in co-ops and 295 of the standalone hockey programs represent a little less than half of the 761 member schools in Michigan that belong to the MHSAA.

“It’s still a significant number of schools involved (in high school hockey),” said Inglis. “The trend has been that the number of total teams has reached a high of 170 in 2005 to 139 currently. But the number of schools involved has risen by 30 schools. That tells us that high school hockey is something parents want their kids to be part of. Our numbers are also up comparable to other states. That’s significant in that high school hockey is a very viable sport.”

Inglis pointed out that in youth hockey in particular, it has caused some choice that has hurt some programs because the kids are playing on travel teams and in junior hockey programs instead of for their schools.

“We like to counteract that by pointing out, where else can you play in front of your peers, in your schools colors? We also see travel kids come back after too much travel and just want to play with their friends. It’s a viable option for kids to get to the elite level because you have to play two years beyond high school at the junior level to even get an audience with college teams. You have to play junior anyway, so why not play high school and then play those junior level years? It’s also so expensive for travel, and significantly lower for high school players.”

High school athletic programs, booster programs, and a little bit of fundraising, help to ease the burden of the cost of playing for high school athletes. Flushing coach Ben Guzak noted that his program is one of few that doesn’t charge the parents and kids for ice time. He also believes that the high school experience is one that parents and kids are overlooking. Guzak said he wishes more parents and their skaters realized the importance and significance of playing for their high school teams.

“High school hockey. I really push for my kids to play high school hockey,” said Guzak. “There is a fine line because a Jr. College kid has better exposure for colleges with travel hockey, but less than 1% of high school players ever play D1 hockey or Tier 1 or 2 juniors, so it’s hard. We try to tell them to let the kids play in front of their schoolmates and have fun. We want them to play and have a blast with their friends, to be a big man on campus and enjoy the social aspect as well. Kids get props for playing in front of family and their school fans.”

Inglis also points to the research and data that shows that multi-sport athletes are what the colleges are looking for in players. “This is education-based athletics,” Inglis stressed. “We’ve seen that two benefits come from the co-ops in that rival schools can come together in a way that no other sport offers. I also think that it has this ability to break down the barriers that exist between rival communities. Kids, who in other sports are mortal enemies, come together as one for hockey programs.”

Grand Blanc coach John Lesser, while not in charge of a co-op, would still like to see some restructuring to help other programs, both high school and otherwise.

“It is unfortunate that more high school teams cannot field teams,” said Lesser. “The loss of the Polar Palace will hurt minor hockey but it may help in a way where we combine the local associations and form one large association for travel and house leagues which would be willing to work with the local high school teams to ensure that kids are staying with programs while young and striving to become high school players – like some of the top programs in the state – like Hartland and Brighton.”

Davison coach Doug Towler, who has 40 years of coaching/playing experience couldn’t agree more.

“Gage Thrall (a graduated senior) is a great example,” said Towler. “Kids think that if they play high school hockey they have no chance. Thrall decided to be a student and embrace his own journey and be a high school student and player.”

Thrall broke the single-season high school goal-scoring record with more than 53. He ended up with 54 on the season along with 39 assists and 93 points to lead the Michigan High School Athletic Association record book category.

Sportswriter Brandon Pope contributed to this article.