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Is anybody listening?

03/08/2020, 3:15pm CDT
By Dan Bauer

Groups need to work together to make things happen

It was the spring of 2009, in the bathroom at the WIAA offices in Stevens Point.  The WHCA board, of which I was still a member, was convening after another frustrating session with WIAA Assistant Director in charge of hockey, Tom Shafranski.  We had just started our normal day long Advisory Meeting discussion.  “Let’s just walk out and go home,” said a board member to remain nameless.  Clearly our voices were again not really being heard and a bold move didn’t seem all that ridiculous. 

Calmer heads prevailed and we returned to the meeting.

In hindsight, I am not sure leaving that morning wouldn’t have been a better idea.  Too many times it has felt as if the requests of the WHCA and the Advisory Committee have truly fallen on deaf ears.

Another decade of begging the WIAA for a two-tier boy’s state tournament followed.  Year after year we were denied and told we had to reach the magically delicious number of ninety-six teams.  We continued to provide plenty of data that clearly showed there was a stark divide between big schools and big co-ops and the small schools who continued to go it on their own.  Over a twenty-year span only twenty-three small schools (enrollments under 1,000) had made it to the state tournament. Single school hockey programs were dwindling as schools joined forces in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage.  The co-op boom erupted, and in 2010 we reached our pinnacle of 93 teams.  We have been declining since.

Two years ago, in miracle like fashion and seemingly out of nowhere, the WIAA abandoned the race for ninety-six and approved a two tier state tournament!  Most of those who had been fighting this battle for years were quite frankly, stunned.

As predicted, our first Division II state tournament will showcase three small schools that have a total of four state tournament appearances, including the first ever by Somerset and a return to state by Northland Pines after a sixteen-year absence. 

Suddenly, new life has been pumped into every small school hockey program in the state.  That new optimism will reveal itself in the disbanding of unnecessary co-op programs and the welcomed re-birth of single school hockey.  The hope is that schools will return to focusing on building their own programs from the bottom up instead of looking around them to find potential co-op partners. 

Based on the assumption that Division II will stay as the thirty-two lowest enrollment schools, the unexpected consequence will be the growth of the Division I pool of teams.  As boy’s hockey experiences a growth spurt, one hopes that an eight team Division I and four team Division II state tournament model will be adopted. 

We can eliminate the excuse that we can’t fit all those games into three days by moving the girl’s tournament to a different weekend & location.  If it isn’t a Title IX issue to have the boys and girls basketball tournaments in different venues, then why is it for hockey?  Piggyback the girl’s tournament with the U-14 Girl’s State Tournament and everyone wins.  The girl’s tournament needs to find an identity of its own and that can’t happen when they are in the shadow of the boys in Madison.

Could a two-tier system work for the girl’s side too?  I actually believe it could have similar results, but would take a really bold and progressive move by the WIAA to put it in motion.  Creating two divisions from the current pool of teams would require an “act of God”, but could spawn a similar movement toward the reduction of large co-ops.  Changes in how we measure girl’s co-ops would be necessary.

The popularity and growth of girl’s co-ops comes from two motives: one to create or maintain championship caliber teams and the other is a necessity to allow girls a place to play.  Unfortunately, some coaches unfairly paint all co-ops with the same evil empire brush.  The over-reaction from the Eagle River/Lakeland area when the Wisconsin Valley Union “dynasty” was created has certainly proven to be irrational.  I am pretty sure both of those programs had bigger rosters than the Union did this year and both engineered wins over the “super co-op.”   WVU was created out of need to absorb a Waupaca program that provided one player this year and will have no high school female players next year. 

Judging co-op programs simply by their enrollment figures is completely flawed.  They need to be looked at by the number of players rostered and, honestly, by the number of players who cut themselves when they see the inflated rosters.  You cannot cut players if you have a co-op, but the natural attrition that takes place should not be completely dismissed.  If you want to design a fair standard to separate girl’s programs, it should be based on roster size.  Enrollment numbers are more about potential, and like players abilities, it is not always reached.

I will lobby again for the coaches associations to actively get involved with encouraging and ultimately executing an exit strategy for large co-op teams.  There absolutely should be a shelf life on co-op programs.  Are we really trying to grow the sport or not?  I hear the same argument that “our numbers are going to decline” yet see roster numbers at 30-40 players year after year.  Right now, there is no incentive offered or ultimatum looming that is more powerful than the desire to keep winning co-ops together.  In short there is no long term thought process supporting what is best for the greater good of the sport.  Just selfish agendas fueled by winning.

If as a hockey nation in Wisconsin we were truly concerned with the “greater good” and growing the game to its full potential, WAHA would put a stop to AAA high school teams during the WIAA season.  That is why Team Wisconsin, Wisconsin Selects and the WEHL were created, to supplement the high school experience.  A glance across the border to our west is the blueprint for doing what is best to grow the game.  Imagine the influx of players back into the WIAA arena if such a mandate were implemented.  And if you really want to boost the girl’s game, open the door for 8th graders to participate.  Get the AED, someone in the WIAA office just went into cardiac arrest.

I have learned to surrender to my wife’s contention that I have selective hearing.  It is time for the WIAA to come to the same conclusion.  They give the WHCA and the Sport’s Advisory Committee the opportunity to speak, but too often only hear what they want, what fits into their agenda.  When they have had an open mind some great changes have taken place.  Yet, when some subjects are raised we are almost scolded like a young child, and told this is not for discussion.  To me that has always seemed completely unprofessional in a conversation with intelligent adults who are supposed to have the “greater good” in their best interest.

Are we really concerned with growing the game, are we willing to make changes?  

Not really any new ideas here, just checking to see if anybody is really listening?

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com

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