Girls high school hockey is done in Anchorage after a decade-long existence that yielded poor participation and scant growth.
Started in 2003 to help the Anchorage School District meet gender-equity legal requirements, the sport never attracted enough players for each of the city's eight public high schools to field separate teams. The district fielded four teams, each of which drew players from two schools.
In the most recent season, 83 girls played high school hockey, down from 87 the year before, according to Derek Hagler, the district's supervisor of high school education.
"It's a supply-and-demand issue," Hagler said, "and we found the demand is not there."
Girls will still be able to try out and play on boys high school teams, he said, continuing a practice that has long been in place in Anchorage.
Hagler said the move isn't expected to jeopardize the district's compliance with Title IX, the federal law that requires gender-equity at schools that receive federal funding.
In the 2011-12 school year -- the last year for which complete numbers are available from the district -- girls constituted 49.1 percent of the high school enrollment and 50.6 percent of those who participated in sports and cheerleading. The district's 16 girls activities drew 3,840 participants; its 15 boys activities drew 3,749.
The School District added girls hockey in 2003 in the wake of a 1998 Title IX complaint. In 2000, federal officials agreed the district was not meeting Title IX requirements, paving the way for girls hockey.
A few years later, the district also added flag football for girls, a sport that has been wildly popular, with as many as 100 girls playing at some schools. That addition, and the numbers it attracted, could help the district withstand gender-equity questions, despite dropping girls hockey.
Still, dozens of girls won't be able to play high school hockey any more unless they are good enough to make a boys team.
"It's really sad," said Darryl Thompson, president of the Alaska State Hockey Association, which represents thousands of youth and adult players across the state.
"I've got eight kids, and three of my girls have already gone through the system and they all loved high school hockey. I've got an eighth-grader living and breathing to play high school hockey, and I haven't told her yet."
Opportunities for girls who want to play hockey still exist at the private club level, although the price of club hockey is far steeper than high school hockey.
The participation fee for high school hockey is $195 a person each season. The per-player price of playing club hockey ranges from $500-$1,000 for a house team, whose travel is limited, and $3,000-$5,000 for a competition team, which travels frequently, according to Rob Askew, the Service-East girls coach who has coached both high school and club hockey.
Those club-team prices don't include travel, Askew said, which can add a couple thousand dollars to the price of comp hockey.
Besides being more affordable than club hockey, high school hockey provides a different kind of experience, Askew said.
"A lot of house girls look forward to high school because it's more competitive, and the comp girls like it because they get to play for their high school and in front of their friends for bragging rights," he said. "It cuts the cost down for parents and kids, and they like competing with their friends."
Though a number of Anchorage girls have gone on to play Division I hockey, those players aren't being developed in high school programs, Askew said. "It's 100 percent" club development for those girls, he said; in fact, the best girls often leave the state as freshmen or sophomores to attend prep schools with strong hockey programs.
Hagler said he doesn't know why girls hockey didn't catch on at the high school level, especially since Anchorage is considered a hockey town.
Askew said he doesn't know either, although he speculated growth might have been stymied by club coaches who made girls choose between comp hockey and high school hockey. He said five or six of the best players at each school usually skipped high school hockey as a result.
Gary Matthews, the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, which oversees high school sports statewide, said he wasn't surprised by the district's decision.
"To me it's been like a stepsister-type thing, because there just hasn't been the interest for some reason. I don't know why," he said. "We did not pull the sanctioning on girls hockey. It's still a state sport, but realistically, I don't think there's much hope it will continue."
In all, the state has six girls hockey teams -- the four in Anchorage, one in the Valley and one in Fairbanks. All of them draw players from multiple schools. No state tournament exists for the sport because participation isn't widespread enough to meet the criteria for one, Matthews said.
Though the school district anticipates budget cuts next school year, Hagler said the decision to cut girls hockey was not a preemptory move.
In fact, although it is cutting girls hockey, the district is restoring interscholastic boys and girls basketball at 10 middle schools.
Intramural programs, which are free to students, will be replaced by the interscholastic programs, which will cost $100 per player per season. Hagler said surveys indicate more than 1,000 middle-schoolers want to play interscholastic basketball.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Alaska Dispatch Publishing