With fewer teams on board, girls high school hockey delays start

Beth Bragg
South-Bartlett goalie Maddi Davis gloves a Dimond-West shot during third-period action Tuesday November 8, 2011 at Ben Boeke Ice Arena.
Erik Hill
Pauline Tufi of Dimond-West fires the puck towards the net against Chugiak-Eagle River during Cook Inlet Conference girls hockey tournament action Wednesday evening Jan. 30, 2013 at Ben Boeke Ice Arena.
Erik Hill
Service/East's Bria Lindoe looks for a pass as South/Bartlett's Katie Knight chases. Service/East beat South/Bartlett, 4-3, in girls hockey on Tuesday, January 15, 2013, at Ben Boeke Ice Arena.
Marc Lester

Declared dead in April and resurrected in September, girls high school hockey in Anchorage appears to be in need of life support as the season begins with half the number of teams and players it had last school year, when the Anchorage School District killed the sport due to poor participation.

What had been a four-team league is now a two-team league following the merger of two teams and the decision earlier this week by a third team -- Chugiak-Eagle River -- to fold rather than regularly take on what coach Randall Sperry said could be two superpower teams.

"This first year is a disaster," said Carlos Gomez of the Scotty Gomez Foundation, which stepped up to run girls hockey as an outsourced high school sport after the school district dropped it.

"The Gomez Foundation has been embarrassed and we'll accept it. I remind everybody that we're in it for three years.

"... We're not dead. We've been accused of making powerhouse teams, and we've had nothing to do with it. My mistake was expecting continuity when what we should've done is start from scratch."

Gomez said participation is down in part because a number of girls decided to play comp hockey -- elite hockey teams run by private organizations -- and there's a rule forbidding players to compete in comp and high school hockey at the same time. He said some players made their choice thinking there wouldn't be a high school season.

"We got a very, very late start, and I accept that," Gomez said. "I ask the community and the girls for patience."

There is no schedule of games yet, but Gomez said the two remaining teams will begin playing the week of Nov. 18. The boys season began this week.

Last season, the 10th since the Anchorage School District sanctioned the sport in 2003, 83 girls from the city's eight public high schools played on one of four teams. There have never been enough girls to field teams at each school, so two-team co-ops were formed.

Now, two of those co-ops have merged into one team that will draw players from four schools -- South, Service, Bartlett and East. The other team draws from Dimond and West.

Sperry, the coach of the Chugiak-Eagle River team, said when parents of his players learned about the four-school merger, they feared the worst -- a team stacked with the experienced players.

"No one really wants to go through the year playing against two teams that are pretty much at another level than we are," Sperry said Thursday. "It's kind of unfortunate. We're pretty used to being one of the weaker teams, but there's always a team or two out there we can compete with. The girls at least need to be able to compete a little, but when the (organizing body) actually creates a powerhouse team, it's a little disheartening."

What's happening in Anchorage has had ripple effects in Fairbanks and the Valley.

The Arctic Bears of Fairbanks -- who defeated Dimond-West in last season's inaugural state championship game -- won't field a high school team this season, coach Shawn Lundgren said. As the only high school team in Fairbanks, the Bears played all of their games against Anchorage's four teams and the Mat-Su Ravens, the lone team in the Valley. Lundgren said the Ravens also decided not to field a high school team this season.

"We tried to hold it together as long as we possibly could, and then Anchorage called and said it would not be able to accommodate us with ice time," Lundgren said.

"The whole thing is just so disappointing. I though we made a huge step this last year, having the state tournament, and I applaud the Gomez Foundation for at least fighting to get it implemented. Unfortunately, they came in a little late for Fairbanks and Mat-Su."

Sperry said 10 players plus a goaltender were signed up to play for Chugiak-Eagle River.

"Last year we had 24, but everybody thought there wouldn't be high school hockey (this season), so word wasn't really out there," Sperry said. "I don't think we did a good job getting the word out, and I would be one of those people who could have done a better job."

After the Chugiak-Eagle River team decided to fold, Mandy Reale, who is running girls high school hockey for the Gomez Foundation, proposed adding players from that team to the one with players from South, Service, Bartlett and East, turning it into a six-team merger.

In a memo detailing her proposal for a six-team merger, Reale said the plan would create two teams of 20 players each, allowing for the possibility of JV games for players with less experience.

"This gives meaningful games to some of the weaker house league players and rewards those beginners who have signed up this year with an opportunity that wouldn't otherwise exist when trying to compete against comp players," she wrote. "The development for these beginners and bubble players will carry over into future seasons."

Lundgren is hopeful the sport will rebound next season, but he's sad about the players who won't get a chance to play for their high schools this season.

"The ones I feel bad for," he said, "are the seniors this year who played for three years."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.