Open Letter to Anyone Who Wants to Listen:
My daughters have been involved in Hockey for their entire lives. And we are now one of the “bad guys” who have had to join a large co-op. For 5 seasons we have played with 10-15 girls, in a small co-op and been one of those teams who got spanked by the large co-ops. It was a just a matter of time, before the Storm would end your season and make their annual trip to the state tourney. Many players were required to play 40 plus minutes a game just to field a team. I joked with my oldest daughter that in her 3 high school seasons, she has really played 6 seasons based on minutes played. I can tell you personally the toll that takes on players and the risk it puts them for injury and the general breakdown of their bodies. It’s a terrible idea to play hockey with less than 15 players.
This season we were down to 7-8 players and had to make the decision to join or die. It seems some people are so against co-ops they would rather see a program drop out, than adjust. And of course the only reason we joined the co-op was to “win” and not to just to sustain a hockey opportunity for our girls. We were proud to be part of the Great Northern Conference and would rather still be there, but times change. Even those teams have had to combine to survive. It’s a shame, but that is the reality of girls hockey in Wisconsin. We can all complain and point fingers and assume there is always some underlying deception going on, but large co-ops are really a reaction to what goes on or what is not going on at the youth level. And folks the “genie” is out of the bottle and it’s always harder to put it back in, than let it out.
My issue is that people make being in a co-op, out to be a “win at all cost” proposition. All co-ops are different and the reasons they exist are different. Sure there are some who have 40-50 players and could find a way to split, but most co-ops only have 15-25 players. Even the big ones. Look at the current rosters. Only a few teams in the State have enough players for a JV Team. The reality is there are currently 28 teams in the state. Of those 28 teams only a handful are stand alone teams like Superior, Pines, and Hudson to name a few. So embrace the reality, most teams are co-ops varying in size from a couple of schools to 13 plus schools. Is it fair - No! The issue is how to fix the problem? Quit complaining about something that is here and do something about it.
First Identify what are the problems with girls hockey. The following are some of the problems I see at many levels.
There are (2) Tier one teams in the state that take away 80 plus players a year - mostly from southern Wisconsin from WIAA Hockey Teams.
Limited Infrastructure. Most rinks in Wisconsin are “one-rink” stand alone rinks - not Tri-rinks like Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. Those rinks are competing for ice-time with youth teams, high school teams, college teams, adult teams and figure skating.
Also so many communities have no rinks at all, forcing kids who want to play to start out of their school district to find that opportunity. This already starts that child and their family on the roadmap to being part of a co-op.
WIAA does not allow 8th grade girls to play High School Hockey like in other states. This allows girls to avoid some of the Bantam years with boys.
The way many high schools treat the sport of hockey and how it’s funded through the schools. Many hockey families pay much more to play hockey than a football player pays at the same high school. Therefore costs become an issue.
USA Hockey and all its resources - does very little to recognize the issues in girls hockey and growing the sport. They use states that do it well like Minnesota as a model. Basically it’s working there, so do what they do.
WAHA - Clearly focuses on boys youth hockey more than girls. They will deny it, but it’s true.
Local Youth Hockey Clubs - Are generally run by “Men and their Son’s”, with girls hockey players as almost an afterthought and in many cases something in the way. I know I was in one for years. Our club is actually working hard to get it right but it wasn’t always that way. I applaud our club for trying so hard to get it right.
The ratio for boys to girls in youth hockey clubs is disproportionately more boys than girls setting up a “failure” waiting to happen for girls.
Clubs will openly recruit boys players to join and in many cases walk right by a group of girls and not recruit them with the same vigor.
Hockey starts at a very young age and in many cases girls start sports later. By the time a 10 year old girl is interested in hockey, many boys have played for 5 years making it difficult or impossible to join the program.
Obviously some clubs are trying to improve these issues already and I do not mean to lump all clubs into this with these generalizations, but rather give an overview of some of the problems.
How do we grow the sport?
It starts at the Youth Level - Which leads to growing the program:
Have USA Hockey, NHL, other Interested National Organizations to help fund expanding infrastructure at existing rinks and communities who want new rinks by qualifying for grant money by meeting standards created to specifically grow girls youth hockey in the United States.
Require each youth organization through its State organization to have on its board a Director of Girls Hockey as a voting member and require each club to submit a plan that meets the criteria set up through USA Hockey to grow the sport in each community.
Create a funding mechanism to encourage schools to make skating a curriculum opportunity in schools to help teach skating skills and introduce the sport. They are already doing this with curling and other related activities.
Finally find a way to fund getting new skaters needed equipment to start the sport, getting rid of the costs associated with starting the sport that deters many from even considering it.
Create “3 on 3” and “4 on 4” opportunities to help with current shortfalls of girls numbers going forward. Think “out of the box” when finding ways to get girls to play with girls at a younger age.
Allow girls that want to play on both boy and girls teams - to allow more advanced girls a chance to play with both rather than choosing one over the other. In many cases they choose boys hockey until bantams, creating more shortfalls with girls teams.
Create a skating only - “learn to skate” “power skating” to develop late starters in girls programs on a weekly basis to go along with the actual hockey program. (A catch up)
Allow girls in 8th grade to play on High School Teams and allowing them to play 5 full seasons. It can be a choice similar to Bantams have by age if they want to stay back even though they are freshman. Choice would be parental based.
Create a co-op size limit to phased in over the next 10-15 years. Yes it will take that long to adjust to limits. Year 10 (2028) School co-op size be limited to 5,000 total enrollment. Year 15 (2033) School size co-op size be limited to 3,000. This allows time to grow the program at the youth level and phase it going forward allowing schools, youth clubs and parents grow their sport in their community.
Phase in and create (2) divisions of girls hockey at the state tourney in the next 5 years. Co-ops under 6,000 and over 6,000, to encourage organizations to split up. Yes it will be watered down at first but it will encourage teams to compete with smaller teams.
Require the WIAA to limit how much a school can charge for athletic programs overall, to make all programs similar in cost. Hockey should not cost 2,000 - 6,000 to play over your high school career. No sport should cost that much and not many others do. They are paid as part of an overall athletic budget amount like any other sport.
Create a “think tank” to come up with a solution and not just wait for it to go away, involving everyone who has a say.
Where do you go from here? That is the million dollar question. Who wants to take on this monumental task. Leave it the hands of the WIAA or just youth hockey organizations? It would take a “champion” for the cause in our state and “champions” nationally. A group must be created to deal with this or it’s never going away. Programs will either join co-ops creating what is really regional hockey teams or hang on and complain every year when someone decides the only option is to join a co-op, creating an unfair playing field in the sport. I am pleading for a “champion” for the sport. My girls are almost done. That is part of the problem. You really don’t get the problem until you are immersed in the problem. Then it’s too late!
Anyway, I hope this inspires someone to find a way to grow a great sport in our great state. Who knows! Hockey has been a wonderful opportunity for my whole family. Winning is the last component that makes it great. It’s our “hockey family” that’s made it so great. I resent those who think otherwise!
A Proud “Hockey Family” Parent