Hockey seems like game of musical chairs

It sometimes seems like a game of musical chairs, the way co-ops are formed and high school hockey teams move up and down over time from division to division.

The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association has basically formulated its 2016 through 2018 (two seasons) three division alignment for boys hockey and it has some impact on local teams.

First, Nashua South and Pelham, pending final NHIAA approval, will, as has been reported by The Telegraph, join forces for the next two years. That means both Nashua North and South will be the lead halves of co-ops. Alvirne, with its Pelham co-op ending, will go on its own to Division II.

After a year with no locals in Division III, the area will now get two. The Hollis Brookline-Derryfield and Pembroke-Campbell squads will both be playing in Division III next season.

The moves were designed by enrollment, mainly. Here’s the lineup:

Division I (1,450 and above, 12 teams) – Bishop Brady, Bishop Guertin, Bedford, Trinity, Manchester Central, Manchester Memorial, Nashua North-Souhegan, Nashua South-Pelham, Hanover, Salem, Londonderry, Pinkerton, Concord, Exeter.

Division II (1200-1449, 15 teams) – Spaulding, Dover, Alvirne, Keene, Portsmouth-Newmarket, Merrimack, Timberlane, Windham, Winnacunnet, Kingswood, Manchester West, Oyster River, Lebanon, St. Thomas, Bow.

Division III (1,199 and below, 12 teams, nine of them co-ops) – Hollis Brookline-Derryfield, Pembroke-Campbell, Kennett, Berlin-Gorham, Belmont-Gilford, Monadnock, Somersworth-Coe-Brown, Laconia-Winnisquam, John Stark-Hopkinton, Sanborn, Moultonborough-Inter-Lakes, Kearsarge-Plymouth.

What’s new? St. Thomas also leaves Divison I for II, while Somersworth essentially returns to Division III from II with a the co-op its had with Coe-Brown. And Monadnock is a new team.

Obviously, one of the biggest local impacts is the South-Pelham co-op, approved by both schools and now just waiting an apparent rubber stamp.

"I’m excited, are you kidding?" South coach Shawn Connors said. "I have a lot more options (with his lineup). Every year we always end up with about 18 kids trying out. Next year we’ll end up with 24-25 kids."

Connors had sounded the alarm to the Nashua administration before this past season had begun that the numbers were going to hit a crisis point, similar as they did to North a year ago. But in gaining Pelham players, the Panthers get a boost with a few first and second line players that helped the
Alvirne-Pelham Avalanche the previous two years.

"We’ll get about seven kids, and I think about five of them were on the top two lines," Connors said. "We’ll be helped a lot and who knows, we might have a good shot at making the tournament."

That hasn’t happened with South in a decade, as it has made it just once since The Split.

Meanwhile, the next biggest change is with Alvirne. Its enrollment is declining, as athletic director Karen Bonney indicated that projections have it as low as 1,100 within two years. But it will return to a single, non-co-op format for the next two seasons, albeit in a lower division. It will be the fourth division change for an Alvirne-based hockey team in the last seven years. The move from II to I when the program merged with Pelham was necessitated due to co-op rules pertaining to the combined enrollment of both schools

"I’m nervous," Bonney said. "We’re going alone. For a lot of different reasons, the co-op didn’t work out for us. We’ll be going to Division II with a young team and possibly without (currently) a goalie. Competing in Division I, our kids played pretty hard. … Division II is where we really belong."

The Broncos – they’ll be back to being that, as opposed to the "Avalanche" – will also be seeking a new coach after Brian Gould stepped down following a seven-year run behind the bench. So changes galore. Bonney said she will hold a meeting in the next few weeks with incoming freshmen "to see what our (hockey) numbers look like."

"We’ll see what the future looks like," she said. "Will we go to Division III in two years? Our enrollment is declining, so we’ll see."

South will be Pelham’s third co-op partner in the last four years. One thing Alvirne can take note of: Pelham’s first partner, Windham, in its second season on its own, just captured the Division II title.

Meanwhile, Hollis Brookline badly needed to get back to Division III, as it was another victim of apparent misplacement due to the co-op enrollment rules. HB-D went 0-16 this past season, but the new enrollment parameters allowed it to go down without having to petition.

"It’s great, everybody’s on board," Hollis Brookline athletic director Rhon Rupp said. "I think our coaches did a good job. The kids were already talking about next year."

The move definitely will boost morale for the program after a tough season. Hollis Brookline was a Division III contender up until a numbers disaster that hit the program three years ago, causing it to (a) spend a year as a JV team and (b) eventually co-op with Derryfield.

This will be the third year of that merge, and Rhupp envisions when Derryfield will be the lead school in that partnership as a middle school feeder system is producing more players.

"The majority of the kids may eventually be coming from there," Rhupp said.

In any event, the move to Division III will likely make the team much more competitive and will attract more players, especially on the HB end.

"We hope so," Rhupp said.

Schedule shift in works

The state hockey finals certainly will remain a fixture at the Verizon Wireless Arena, but one thing that the NHIAA would like to avoid is the extra week it needed to wait to have the finals as late as they did this year due to the building’s availability.

Many teams had a huge layoff at the end of the regular season because of the extra week. The 2014 finals were held on March 14; this year was five days later. Normally, in theory going by past years, the regular season would have ended on Saturday, Feb. 27 with the finals on March 12. Instead the regular season was extended to March 5.

"Exactly, the people here are fantastic to work with," NHIAA Executive Director James Collins said. "The dates just didn’t line up. We give them the dates earlier, and hopefully we won’t have that issue again next year."