Year to forget for local hockey

Here we go again.

The Nashua High School North-Souhegan and South-Pelham boys hockey teams meet on Saturday at 4:30 at Conway Arena, and once again it’s the finale to a not-so-grand local regular season for both teams.

But this year, they’re not alone. It’s been a downright lousy year locally for high school hockey, save the Bishop Guertin boys and girls teams.

Now before you say that’s what to expect, that’s not the case. In the last decade, besides BG, the Souhegan (often), Alvirne, and Merrimack hockey teams have all been on the grand stage at what is now the SNHU Arena for championship games.

Unless the BG boys get there (or the Guertin girls pull off a string of tourney upsets), for the first time in recent memory there won’t be any locals playing in the hockey title games.

In fact, it’s more than likely that BG is the only area school that will have teams in the tournaments, period, with the exception of the five or six players from Campbell who compete with Pembroke as a co-op in Division III.

Ouch. The sport has fallen locally.

Merrimack faced a rebuilding year and if it weren’t for a penalty-laden final game, the Tomahawks might have at least grabbed the last spot in Division II.

Hollis Brookline-Derryfield had only four wins going into Friday’s scheduled finale, and the Warriors dropped down to Division III, which is where they belonged after going winless in Division II last year.

Heck, it wasn’t that many years ago that Hollis Brookline and Souhegan were in a battle royal in the Division III quarterfinals at Cyclones Arena when the rough-and-tough Cavs powered their way into their first-ever semis.

Alvirne, which has played in all three divisions in the last six years either alone or paired with Pelham, went alone this season, moving down to Division II. The Broncos go into their final game with just three wins.

In other words, the ice under most of these teams has turned to what it’s been outside the last couple of days with the warm temps – mush.

What’s going on? In the case of the Saber-Titans, they’ve lacked experience in net; it’s killed them. In the case of the Kings (South-Pelham), since a promising Conway Tourney title, they’ve had too many injuries (they lost one of their best, Mike Fournier, recently).

But it’s feast or famine in a lot of situations. There just aren’t enough good hockey players to go around, and it’s for mainly the same reasons we’ve written several times – players going to the lower level B and C Juniors and elsewhere.

If you think things are bad in the Nashua area, try Manchester. A few years ago, Manchester Central and Memorial were squaring off for the Division I title. This year, Memorial has just one win and Central, while having a respectable year, is scared to death it won’t have enough for a team a year from now. Rosters for both teams are miniscule.

Here in Nashua, Kings coach Shawn Connors, still an advisor for the New England Edge youth program after he recently sold it, sees plenty of talent coming in four or five years. But will that talent go to play for their school teams or elsewhere?

“It’s funny, Massachusetts doesn’t have this problem,” Connors said. “That’s because the parents have their kids play for their schools. For some reason the parents in New Hampshire think high school hockey isn’t quality hockey.”

There is a fear among a lot of coaches and some athletic directors that in a few years high school hockey will cease to exist in New Hampshire. There’s an underlying fear that some school districts with co-ops won’t want to fork over thousands for what is in some cases a handful of players to be able to compete.

Connors says it’s time to get the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association more involved,as this space suggested a year ago. There’s many who feel the co-op enrollment rule (combined, can’t be more than the largest school, which is Pinkerton) to allow the Nashua teams to merge and the two Manchester teams (West is no longer playing) to do the same. Makes sense.

There’s a feeling something must be done to help schools keep their players, but what? It still boggles yours truly’s mind that parents pay thousands of dollars to have kids play for lower-level junior teams, thinking college coaches will scoop them up. Not happening.

Time for coaches to gather as a large group and request an audience with the state powers, beginning with the hockey committee. First step, try to get some voices to reach the higher levels and get the co-op rule tweeked.

“The NHIAA has got to start recognizing hockey as a niche sport,” Connors said. “It’s not like football or some other sports where you can have some kids walking on.”

But the bigger problem is his next statement:

“I don’t know how to change the mentality of the kids or their parents.”

There should be a good crowd at Conway on Saturday, as you’ve got four schools involved. You’ve got some talent, too, with North-Souhegan’s John Natale and Jeremiah Latham and the Kings’ Bobby Haverty and Kyle Joyce, to name just a few.

Both programs will be back at it next season. The Kings have the better numbers for now.

But, unless a big movement to change the culture can begin, as Connors says, “What’s next?”

High school hockey fans may not like the answer.

Tom King can be reached at 594-1251, tking@nashuatelegraph.com., or @Telegraph_TomK.