ASHBURN, Va. — USA Hockey had been recognizing youth national champions since 1940 and hosting the High School Nationals for seven years. But the event made its East Coast debut and drew 40 teams this weekend to suburban Washington, D.C.
The game for players of high school age is seeing participation rise with more than 1,600 teams sanctioned by state associations, plus the number of players in junior and elite programs, including many that competed in the High School Nationals.
“We’re seeing the same kind of growth taking place all across the board in hockey,” said Bob Mathson, director of USA Hockey and High School Section chair. “We’ve finally recognized a niche for high school hockey and we’re capitalizing on it.”
This is the second year that the event took place in two divisions — the Pure Division and the Combined Division. Pure Division teams are made up of players who all go to the same school. Combined Division teams are made up of players who go to two or more schools. Participating teams must be registered with USA Hockey and it’s up to each state to determine which teams it sends to the nationals. In some states, the varsity high school state champion is eligible such as in Colorado (Colorado teams swept the divisions in 2015); in other states such as Minnesota, a junior gold team competes.
The event was in the St. Louis area last year and heading to Cleveland next year. The East Coast has had lesser representation in past events, but seven teams from the host area were among the initial participants in pool play this year.
“We’re absolutely delighted that we’ve seen representatives from the East Coast area,” Mathson said. “We thought we would experiment with taking the bid from the East Coast and see what happens.
“Pennsylvania has two districts and we had representatives from both districts. We had teams from Virginia and Maryland and they want to come back. It was the first time we’ve had a Maryland representative.”
The event began with 20 teams at its inception. The 40 teams this year is a jump from 32 teams last year. The plan is to return to 32 next year, largely for logistical reasons.
“A lot of it is timing,” Mathson said. “Some states finish by the beginning of February and you have to keep the team going for another month and a half before the tournament begins and in other cases the timing is that the states don’t finish until March 11.”