When the CAAC hockey league began in 2007, taking over from the old Capital Area Varsity Hockey League, there were 10 teams.
Four of those teams were co-op programs consisting of players from more than one school, created because there were not enough players from each school to field individual teams.
Today, combined teams are the rule rather than the exception. There are eight teams in the league, with only two remaining from a single school, Okemos and Jackson Lumen Christi. This year, Holt had to merge with other schools for the first time, bringing in players from Eaton Rapids and Potterville.
Holt still competes as the Rams, and the Jackson High School hockey team is still the Vikings, although the team name is Jackson United and includes players from Jackson Northwest and Parma Jackson County Western, but players no longer wear the sweaters of East Lansing or Lansing Catholic. Players from those two schools play for the Eastside Stars and Capital Area Patriots, respectively.
Eastside consists of players from East Lansing, Haslett, Williamston, Bath and Laingsburg. The Patriots draw their players from Mason, Charlotte, Lansing Catholic and Lansing Christian.
Also this year, the Grand Ledge/Waverly team ended a 17-year run as the Comet-Warriors and became Grand Ledge/Fowlerville.
There are several possible reasons for the reduced numbers of players, starting with the cost of participation, even at the youth levels. With the troubled economic times of the last few years, youth hockey has become too expensive for many families to afford. The nature of the sport demands starting young, perhaps more so than any other, so coaches don’t have the luxury of finding an athlete in their school who wants to take up hockey as a freshman in high school, as they can in just about any other sport.
“I think the economy has really affected the amount of players who are getting into hockey,” Grand Ledge/Fowlerville coach Brian Clifford said. “You really have to have about 20 kids to run a team.”
Some players eschew high school hockey in favor of elite travel teams, which are seen as the best, if not only, path to a college hockey scholarship.
“The advantage in this area to playing high school hockey is that you get to play in front of your friends and play with your classmates, but you’re probably sacrificing any chance of being looked at,” Eastside coach Scott Crilly said. “The recruiters are not coming to high school games. They’re going to Detroit to look at the AAA Junior players.”
But that has always been the case, even in the best of times, according to Okemos coach Bill Sipola.
“We lose three or four (players) every year to travel hockey,” Sipola said. “That’s happened every single year, and it’s going to continue.”
While it would be easy to conclude that the trend of reducing numbers of local players portends a bleak future for the sport in this area, Clifford is confident that the problem is temporary.
“We’re hitting a lull with the numbers right now, but the future looks good,” Clifford said. “There are more kids in the earlier, learn-to-skate programs and those sorts of things than what have been in the last couple of years. That bodes well for down the road.”
Crilly, who coached younger players in the Greater Lansing Amateur Hockey Association before taking his current position four years ago, agrees.
“I was over in GLAHA, and we had some lean years as far as players go,” Crilly said. “They’re reaching high school age now, and so we’re short on players. I think we’re coming up on some years after this drought where the numbers are back up again.”
Nor is the problem universal. Okemos has been able to resist having to merge with other schools because its participation is as strong as ever.
“Our numbers have been up,” Sipola said. “We had 27 players try out this year, and we cut six or seven of them, freshmen who will be coming back next year.”
Sipola, who has coached the Chiefs for 17 years, said that high school hockey always will be an affordable alternative for those players who understand that parlaying the high cost of travel hockey into a scholarship is rare.
“Getting to the next level, college hockey, is pretty tough. Not many of those players are going to do it,” he said. “For most of the teams in high school it’s about $2,500, depending on how many practices you have. In travel hockey, getting up to the AAA level, we’re talking $6,000-10,000. So, high school hockey is much cheaper.
“The way it looks now, I think we’re in good shape with younger skaters. For the foreseeable future, I think we’re OK.”