Programs trying to stay optimistic

Lisa Gingras and Dick Miller stood outside the Nashua High School North board room a few nights ago and you could tell the emotions were mixed.

“It’s sad,” Gingras, Nashua’s athletic director, said as her Souhegan counterpart, Miller, nodded in agreement.

That’s because two proud programs, one that has struggled to build a tradition and another that has struggled to hold on to its own, are holding on to each other to survive.

It shouldn’t be this way.

But for the Souhegan and North’s boys varsity hockey programs, that is indeed the case.

Miller estimates that Souhegan will have 10 players back next year, with the number of freshman or any other new players unknown. North may have only six or seven. Thus the time to act is now.

As has been reported, the two schools are being pro-active to preserve what’s left of their programs, getting permission from their school boards to form a co-op team for next season. Now they have to see if they can get permission from the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, something that could be dicey since this isn’t a so-called “classification year” and these are two programs that have already had their own teams.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle in every aspect,” Gingras said.

You’d have to hope that the NHIAA won’t kill two programs, which if it doesn’t let this take place would be an atrocity.

That being said, it’s so unfortunate this has to happen.

Souhegan just 13 months ago was celebrating its fourth Division III hockey championship. Two former Nashua coaches, John Coughlin and Dan Belliveau, have enjoyed success, along with another Nashuan, Ed Viola, in between.

North has been hanging on by a thread for years, but has been by far the better of the two Nashua programs in terms of talent and results. Dan Legro is the latest in a line of top-notch Titans coaches.

But now something has to be done. Neither school can gamble that hockey players will come out of the woodwork late next November to boost dwindling rosters. They need to get on teams schedules, get everything formalized.

“I think,” Miller said, “you have to look at it from that standpoint.”

This all goes back to the state of ice hockey in New Hampshire. It used to be a premier player or two would opt to play junior hockey as a way to get into a Division I college.

Now, tons of less elite junior programs have sprung up, offering in this humble scribe’s opinion delusions of grandeur while charging an arm and a leg.

As Legro said, “I’m no expert, but it sure doesn’t seem this way in any of the other sport. I don’t hear anybody else talking about it in the other sports.”

There’s a few here and there that go to a prep school or so-called elite program in the other sports, but nothing like the pillage and plundering of high school hockey. But the cause now is not as much the issue as survival is.

Gingras and Miller are doing the right thing. Two years ago, then-Hollis Brookline coach Ken DeCredico stood in the lobby of Conway Arena after the Sabers had eliminated the Cavaliers in the tournament. He expressed sincere concern about the future of his program, knowing of only about eight players set to return the following season.

Nearly nine months later, his worst fears came true. The Cavs were lucky though, as the NHIAA allowed them to field a JV team a year ago and then merge with Derryfield in a co-op this winter. Gingras and Miller don’t want to wait and take that chance.

The numbers can always change. Two years ago, as Miller noted, Souhegan had no trouble getting a roster of 20-plus. But things change and there is no telling what the future will hold.

But Legro knows what it holds for North if they can’t join forces with the Sabers.

“I told Lisa if we can’t co-op, I’m not planning on having a hockey team,” he said.

And taking a year off can be lethal. This is why Alvirne Athletic Director Karen Bonney acted swiftly last March to grab Pelham as a hockey partner.

“It worked out good,” Alvirne-Pelham coach Brian Gould said. “I’d like to stay in Division I as long as we can. If a kid is thinking about junior hockey, and he’s in a Division I program, he’d be more likely to stay.”

For the Sabers players, Division I would be a jump, to be sure. Would that draw more players? Possibly, but it didn’t matter at North, did it?

Then there’s the matter of who would coach the team; the job would likely be opened up although you’d think Legro and Belliveau would be strong candidates to be involved.

Tough choice – Belliveau has a title and Legro has done a lot with little – as in few players.

So many questions. But the biggest one is whether this can clear all the red tape, rules, etc.

One major sticking point in the NHIAA bylaws is the rule that stipulates “No more than one (1) of the schools involved may have offered the sport in the previous school year.”

Of course, both North and Souhegan had teams the past year. But when it comes to an organization whose main mission is to provide opportunity, could they really deny this?

It’s just a bevy of emotions. On one hand, you hate to see it have to happen. On the other, it has to happen.

Otherwise, two schools will be saying good-bye to hockey, and no one should want that.

Tom King can be reached at 594-6468, or @Telegraph_TomK.