On any given snowy day during the school week, Brandon Pelton doesn’t know what to expect when he gets to hockey practice.

“It can be tough. If there’s a snowstorm, one school can be out,” Pelton said.

For Pelton’s team, it’s not as easy as no school, no practice. He is a junior on the Poland/Gray-New Gloucester/Oak Hill/Leavitt cooperative boys’ hockey team. If Pelton, a Gray-NG student, has school on a day it snows, that means he probably still has hockey practice later that day at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn. But if Poland, Oak Hill or Leavitt don’t have school, Pelton might be out a linemate, or a goalie to shoot on.

If that were the only issue that cooperative hockey teams had to deal with, the Ice Hockey Committee of the Maine Principals’ Association wouldn’t be looking into adjusting how the state’s high school sports governing body classifies boys’ and girls’ ice hockey, as well as other sports under the MPA’s watch.

The committee has drafted a proposal to change the MPA’s cooperative teams policy. MPA Assistant Executive Director Mike Burnham stressed that the proposal is still in draft form, and it may be tweaked before it goes to vote at the MPA’s spring conference at the end of April. But the proposal is a possible peak into the future of ice hockey — and high school sports in general — in the state.

Since schools started combining efforts into cooperative hockey teams more than a decade ago, the classification of teams has always been determined by the combined school populations of the two (or more) schools. That has all but assured that co-op teams will be placed in Class A in boys’ hockey. For the 2016-17 season, 10 of the 13 boys’ co-op teams are playing in Class A, including Poland/Gray-NG/Oak Hill/Leavitt.

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Adjusting percentages

The Ice Hockey Committee proposal would change the classification guidelines so that only the host school’s full school population will be counted, and each additional school’s population only accounts for whatever percentage of the co-op team that school makes up. For instance, if Oak Hill makes up 20 percent of the PLOG co-op — as the team currently calls itself — then only 20 percent of Oak Hill’s school population counts toward the team’s enrollment numbers for classification purposes.

The drafted proposal sets a maximum of three schools in a co-op, though a fourth can be added with a waiver. Current four-school co-ops will be grandfathered.

This adjustment would help fix two (of the many) problems co-ops and prospective co-ops face. It allows those with small roster numbers, or disproportionate roster numbers, to be placed in a more appropriate class (Class B for smaller teams or schools). And it prevents scaring off smaller schools and teams from combining with other schools or teams, or bringing on additional schools, such as the Lewiston girls’ program has done with Oak Hill and Monmouth Academy.

“I think that this is an opportunity that schools have to continue their program and maybe even grow the program,” Burnham said.

“It allows the schools to maybe co-op with other communities and still stay in the same classification,” said Lewiston athletic director Jason Fuller, who is on the Ice Hockey Committee. “We looked at it as a way — just the direction that the sport is going — is how can we handle it, and allow communities maybe to do it more often, and yet not affect their classification. Because the worst thing you can do is have two small communities have to get together to form a co-op, and all of a sudden they’re in Class A and misplaced in a division they can’t have some success in, maybe.”

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Burnham said one of the reasons so few co-op teams currently exist in Class B is that some of those schools are perfectly happy playing in the lower class, where they can be competitive against teams of similar school and program size. Maranacook/Winthrop is the only co-op team in Class B South, but with the committee’s proposal, it might have company in the future.

“I think you may see some of the Class B schools willing to take on another school and form a cooperative team because it may not drive their enrollment up into Class A,” Burnham said.

Girls’ hockey doesn’t have classes, with only 16 teams currently playing in the whole state. But co-ops make up 10 of those teams, allowing the sport to stay afloat.

But, as with boys’ hockey, cooperative teams are more than just a numbers game.

The PLOG co-op was created out of necessity, because the Poland/Gray-NG/Oak Hill and Leavitt programs were both feeling the numbers crunch. With a roster size of nearly 30 players, that worry is no longer there.

But that doesn’t mean the worries have gone away. And Pelton having to wonder which teammates he will see at a snowy-day practice is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Can you hear me now?

“Communication is a challenge,” Poland athletic director Don King said. “Making sure that all of the athletic administrators anticipate questions and responses so that we are all on the same page. Since the coach is usually hired by one of the schools, making sure that everyone is in the loop with changes and decisions. I am fortunate that the AAs that I have been working with are good communicators and we all keep each other in the loop.”

That loop also has to include the co-op coaches, who may not have direct ties to any of the involved schools.

“As a coach, coordinating the off-ice logistics, including receiving athletic paperwork and figuring out the schedule for students that go to different schools, is always a challenge,” Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse coach A.J. Kavanaugh said.

Kavanaugh is only in his second year at the helm of the MLM Eagles program, but the program itself has been around for seven years, starting when declining roster numbers forced Mt. Ararat’s hand.

Dealing with the off-ice stuff becomes a little easier as the program gets older, according to Lake Region/Fryeburg/Oxford Hills coach Dave Lepage.

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“Once the MPA approves the school combinations and you have a few years under your belt, the team is much easier to manage moving forward,” Lepage said.

Co-existing as a co-op

Lepage’s team goes by the name “Ice Cats,” which has no affiliation to any of the participating schools. The program has created an identity all its own, which is important when there isn’t a dominant school, like Lewiston is with Monmouth and Oak Hill, or the boys’ team made up of Cony, Hall-Dale and Monmouth.

Combining efforts wasn’t always easy for the Ice Cats.

“The challenges of any co-op are initially to get the players to buy in to a new team concept — especially when you are taking teams like Fryeburg and Lake Region, who are direct rivals in every other sport,” Lepage said.

Former Leavitt and current PLOG player Ashton Dozois said he didn’t know what to expect in terms of creating team unity when the new co-op began preseason practice. Leavitt isn’t a natural rival with the other schools in most sports, but the two hockey programs did play against each other in the past.

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Unity is hard to create when rivalries go back generations, however.

“For a city with two competitive high schools, the biggest challenge (when the co-op started) was getting (rid of) the old-school thought process of ‘Portland vs. Deering’ rivalry,” Deering athletic director Melanie Craig said. “Now, with a few years under our belt, our program is not a Portland/Deering rivalry, but two schools, one city.”

Before the Portland/Deering co-op could even worry about the rivalry that had to be diffused, the two schools had to fight to even become a rivalry. Due to the large enrollments of both schools, they had to get the MPA to allow them to combine forces. That took a year for the girls’ program, and an additional year after that for the boys’ program. The Ice Hockey Committee’s proposal could diffuse similar situations in the future.

Gray-NG athletic director Aaron Watson said uniting four communities is now the biggest challenge that the PLOG. program faces. That, and solidifying a new name and identity, which is in the works.

Uniting enough money together to support the team was seemingly much easier for PLOG. What was once a concern for the Leavitt school board with a standalone boys’ team and a combined girls’ co-op with Edward Little and Poland has been eased by the Leavitt boys joining forces with the former 26ers program of Poland/Gray-NG/Oak Hill. New PLOG coach Joe Hutchinson, formerly the Leavitt coach, said his program was approved for $7,500 by the Leavitt school board, when he used to have a budget of $22,000 when Leavitt was a healthy standalone boys’ program.

Combining efforts with three other schools can help make up that funding gap.

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So, too, can combining efforts with other communities, according to Kavanaugh.

“Our program, like many others, has to fundraise to cover a large portion of our expenses each season,” Kavanaugh said. “A big advantage to this is having multiple communities support our efforts. Our major fundraiser is selling Christmas trees, and we are able to sell them in Topsham and Lisbon Falls. All of our communities support this team, and it goes a long way to keep us going financially.”

That’s not the case for every school involved in hockey, however. Monmouth only has a few players that participate on either the Cony/Hall-Dale/Monmouth boys’ or Lewiston/Monmouth/Oak Hill girls’ teams. Monmouth athletic director Wade Morrill said the school doesn’t have the funds to support those players, so the financial burden falls on the players’ families — which is seemingly the case for every hockey family.

That’s one potential factor Fuller said he sees in the declining participation numbers for hockey throughout the state.

Reinforcements needed

Those declining numbers almost meant the end for Leavitt hockey. It did mean a year away from varsity hockey for the Ice Cats.

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“We made the move to JV based on the fact that I knew we weren’t going to have the numbers to support an 18-game season,” Lepage said. “With the MPA’s policies on completing the season, we were not willing to risk future sanctions if we could not finish our season. It wouldn’t be fair to our future players and the rest of the league.”

Lepage said half of his roster is freshmen, and he expects the numbers to go back up soon, with a return to varsity in the near future.

But the numbers across the state might never go back up.

“You’d have to talk to the teams that are forming co-ops, but I just don’t think there’s as many kids that are playing ice hockey,” Burnham said.

“It’s a numbers game driven by the amount of players in the feeding youth organizations,” Lepage said. “If the youth organization in the area is struggling for numbers, the high school will eventually reflect that struggle as well.”

“Needless to say, it does not look like, from a participation and budget standpoint, co-ops will being going away any time soon,” Kavanaugh said. “I do see participation in youth hockey in our area increasing, so hopefully that means better numbers at the high school level down the road.”

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Co-ops seem to be a hit with athletic departments and school boards. It allows students the opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities while spreading out the associated costs. The Lisbon School Board just signed on for another year to be part of the MLM program. Lisbon athletic director Eric Hall said the school’s relationship with the program “has been great.” Watson had a similar sentiment when talking about the Gray-NG school board’s view of co-op relationships.

Can co-ops contend?

One area that co-ops have failed so far, though, are the results on the ice.

Take one look at the list of past champions on the MPA website, and every champion since 1927 (the first year on the list) is a single-school entity. And since 2011, only six times has a co-op team won a postseason game, with one of those being Noble/Wells’ victory over South Portland/Freeport/Waynflete in 2015. Noble/Wells has won three postseason games in its history, and Marshwood/Traip has two such wins to its name. Houlton/Hodgdon is the only co-op to appear in a regional final, but that came after opening the 2011 Class B postseason in the semifinals, where it beat Old Town (which is now in a co-op with neighboring Orono).

“I think if you go back and look at the history of ice hockey, particularly on the boys’ side, (you’ll find) that the cooperative teams haven’t necessarily been extremely successful,” Burnham said, “that often times forming a cooperative team means just having enough bodies to fill the team; that you still see your single-school teams winning a majority of the tournament games, and certainly the championships.”

“I think hockey is a tough one,” Fuller said. “Competitive balance has been a problem, and we’ve looked at that. I think we’ve made some adjustments to allow for better schedules. I think the ice hockey model of scheduling has allowed teams and schools to build relationships with schools at the same competitive state. And that’s helped, in the last couple years, with more competitive games.

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“But you still look at hockey, and you’re still going to have the powers. That hasn’t changed, and I don’t suspect that’s going to change. I think we’re still waiting for a co-op to have a really, really successful run at a state championship.”

Lepage said the skill discrepancy between the traditional powers and the co-ops has shrunk, evidenced by closer scores in some of those games.

But what might be bringing the single-school teams and co-op teams closer together might have less to do with skill and more to do with numbers. Some teams are finding it harder and harder to field JV teams, which Fuller said might be the most worrisome, looming problem the committee has to deal with. Even some traditional powers are finding it hard to put together a JV squad, and Lepage said he’s heard of some programs combining JV teams but keeping separate varsity squads.

That could be a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Lepage can foresee a future that could include such co-ops as Falmouth-Greely, or maybe even Lewiston-St. Dom’s.

Kavanaugh said some coaches have vouched for teams to be separated between single-school programs and co-op programs, though he did admit that geography would make that plan difficult to make work.

Fuller admitted that the future of high school hockey in the state is “a little scary,” but the Ice Hockey Committee hopes that making co-ops easier to create will keep the sport sustainable in something close to its current state.

“I think you’re going to continue to see the formation of cooperative teams to allow schools to field a team, or to allow schools to join with a neighboring district to give kids an opportunity,” Burnham said. “I don’t think that we’re going to see fewer co-operative teams. I think you’re going to continue to see the numbers increase.”

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