Ian Clark's H.S. Hockey: D-III hockey's great divide
In the ranks of NHIAA Division III boys' ice hockey, the divide between the top teams and the bottom of the pack is a wide one.
That disparity was on display Wednesday when undefeated Belmont-Gilford (8-0-0) routed Manchester West (0-5-0) by an 11-1 score.
"There's a huge difference. The bottom teams in DIII don't even have a chance," said West head coach Matt Thompson. "You can cut the division in half and those on the lower half we can have decent games against. The top ones, it feels almost like a Division I team. It's tough, but what can you do?"
The move of teams up to Division II has affected the parity in Division III.
"Losing Pelham-Windham, Somersworth going up to DII, Alvirne, who I think should be DIII," said Belmont-Gilford head coach Jay Londer. "When we lost them it stunk because we had 10, 11 teams where every night was a battle, which was awesome."
The difference now comes down to the number of kids on the bench.
"We're really deep and we roll three lines and five defenseman most every game," Londer said. "Some of the better teams...I think John Stark has three lines. Souhegan has three lines and only plays two. Kennett only has 13 skaters. Berlin runs two lines. The depth is key."
Manchester West, a perennial contender in the mid-1980s era of one division of high school hockey, has fallen on hard times.
"We don't have a talent pool coming from anywhere. Basically, it's homegrown. Kids recruit kids to learn how to play just to keep a program going," Thompson said. "We have a handful of kids that have hockey experience and the rest are just learning to skate and play with the puck. We have one line that can play, but you can't play just one line. I try to run a balanced lineup and see if we can stay in these games."
For the "haves" of the DIII landscape, playing games against the "have-nots" becomes a tough coaching struggle.
Coaches like Londer will empty their benches in a one-sided game, as he did on Wednesday. But those third and fourth line kids who rarely see the ice want to score goals when they get into the game, too.
"They want to score and this is the most goals we've scored all year," Londer said. "I'm not a coach that runs it up. Those are all guys that haven't scored for me."
So the message for West is to play for the love of the game, which seems to be keeping the Blue Knights happy.
"As long as the kids have fun. For the most part,this year has been very positive," Thompson said. "They've been trying a lot harder this year. The effort has been there. I have no complaints there. It's a matter of not having the numbers and skill to compete. We have some games coming up that we can compete in and hopefully get a win or two. That's the goal for us."
For the upper half of Division III, it's a struggle for seeding in what should be a rugged playoff environment.
Londer said he sees the split coming at the No. 8 seed, with the top seven programs in DIII being competitive with one another.
"Whoever gets the No. 1 seed is going to play a bottom-end team and get an easy game in the first round," Londer said. "But two playing seven, that's a battle. Three playing six is a battle, four and five is a battle. But who knows, do you want to get that No. 1 seed and not have tough game in that first round or would you rather get that test?"
Ian Clark covers high school hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.