The Manchester Memorial boys’ hockey team defeated Manchester Central for the NHIAA Division I boys’ hockey championship in 2013, marking the second of three consecutive years one of the two programs reached the final.
This past spring, the rivals attempted to form a co-op team in an effort to be more competitive in Division I, but they were denied.
Memorial and Central, which is currently in a co-op with Manchester West, barely have enough players to field teams, according to acting Manchester school district director of athletics Christine Pariseau-Telge.
Memorial and Central/West met with the NHIAA Classification Committee in April looking for approval to form a co-op team between the three schools for the upcoming school year. The committee denied the proposal because the three schools’ combined submitted enrollment numbers for the current classification cycle (2018-19 and 2019-20) would exceed that of Pinkerton Academy of Derry, which has the highest enrollment (3,449 as of 2018-19) in the state. As stated in Article IV, Section IX of the NHIAA handbook, a co-op team’s member schools cannot have a combined enrollment that exceeds that of the largest in the state.
Central, Memorial and West appealed the ruling in May, which the classification committee denied.
Memorial went 3-14-1 last year and 4-14 during the 2017-18 season. Central/West finished with a 1-17 record each of the past two seasons.
Central/West had 10 freshmen on its 15-player roster last season. In its first season as a co-op (2017-18), Central/West had 14 skaters and two goalies on its roster, which is the same breakdown Central had in its last season as a standalone program (2016-17).
Memorial coach Mark Putney said he has had around 17 or 18 players on his roster the past few years.
“The Classification Committee, after a lengthy discussion on the plight of the situation the City of Manchester is in, did not support the request due to the concern that the combined enrollment numbers for the three-school cooperative exceed that of the largest high school in the state,” the NHIAA Classification Committee wrote in its ruling, which was obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Dover High School director of athletics and NHIAA Ice Hockey Committee chairman Peter Wotton said his committee was torn with what to do regarding the Central/West/Memorial co-op request.
“Ultimately, the request to form a three-school arrangement (Memorial, West, Central) in boys’ ice hockey failed by a very narrow vote, primarily, as a result of the cooperative by-law which limits the combined enrollment of the schools involved in the agreement to less than the enrollment of the largest school in the state,” Wotton said in an email. “Our committee did not feel that we were in a position to allow this cooperative arrangement in light of the cooperative enrollment by-law.”
Pariseau-Telge expects both Memorial and Central/West to field teams in Division I next season but said each is struggling with the level of competition in Division I. There is also a concern regarding the safety of some of the more inexperienced players in both programs, Pariseau-Telge said.
“Our intention was not to form a ‘powerhouse’ but to provide hockey at a level that was enticing to younger athletes that have other opportunities with their hockey choices,” Pariseau-Telge said in an email.
When Putney learned the co-op proposal was denied, he was disappointed.
“I thought it’d be helpful to combine and co-op schools to help the hockey programs,” said Putney, who led Memorial to the 2013 Division I title and a runner-up finish in 2012.
“The numbers in Manchester have been diminishing the last 4-5 years. I thought it’d be a great opportunity to combine schools, raise the competitive level within the city and be beneficial for the kids. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen this year.”
When asked why he thinks the numbers in the city have declined in recent years, Putney said it is a tough question to answer.
“I think less kids, probably, are playing at a competitive level,” Putney said. “I think the fact that a lot of kids that at least would be attending Central may choose to go to Pinkerton. It’s a very time-consuming sport, very skill-oriented and very costly and I think that the kids these days, maybe, are opting out of that type of commitment and that’s unfortunate but I think we’re starting to see that.”
Jim Tufts led both the Exeter High School boys’ hockey and boys’ soccer teams for 42 years before retiring from both positions at the end of this past school year. Tufts, who won more than 500 games and three state titles in hockey, said one of the problems Central/West and Memorial face are the number of alternative options to play hockey in the city.
“It’s created a challenge for them to keep numbers,” said Tufts, who served on the NHIAA Ice Hockey Committee in the 1980s. “It’s been sad because those of us who have been around forever, Central, Memorial, West and Trinity, there’s just great tradition. ... You want the kids to play in the city and want the teams to be viable and competitive.”
Schools like Exeter, Bedford, Concord and Hanover have largely been able to avoid the dip in participation numbers that others have faced in recent years.
There were 17 boys’ co-op teams in the state last year, three of which played in Division I (Central/West, Nashua North/Souhegan, Nashua South/Pelham). There were 12 boys’ hockey co-op teams in the state during the 2015-16 season.
Nashua North joined with Souhegan of Amherst, which won four Division III titles as a standalone program, ahead of the 2015-2016 season. South and Pelham formed their co-op one school year later. Pelham has previously had co-ops with Windham and Alvirne of Hudson, which is currently in a co-op with Milford.
“There was talk of dropping hockey at North and this co-op came to the rescue in a way,” former North/Souhegan coach John Coughlin told the New Hampshire Union Leader during the co-op’s inaugural season.
Nashua won three state titles and appeared in five championship games from 1985-2002. Memorial, which celebrated its 51st season last year, Central and West have recorded a combined eight state championships and nine runner-up finishes in their history.
“The landscape has changed,” Tufts said. “Kids are finding other avenues to what they view is success. It’s too bad because there’s nothing more fun than playing for your school... It’s great to see kids play for their schools and enjoy that camaraderie. I won’t be surprised if it (high school hockey) comes back around. I think it is a little bit.”
Putney is hopeful numbers across the city bounce back with the aid of youth programs like the Manchester Flames.
“I hope that Manchester high schools can get through this upcoming year,” Putney said. “Hopefully there are enough kids up and coming that are willing to stick with the game before it becomes nonexistent in the city.”