There are two sides to every mountain, some might argue there are three or four. In girl’s hockey in Wisconsin there are clearly two sides and the degree of difficulty from one side to the other is as stark a contrast as climbing Rib Mountain or Mount Everest.
Having been on both sides of the mountain I understand the entitlement you feel on one side and the helplessness you feel on the other side. The people on both sides of the mountain are relatively the same. Good people who want what is best for their kids. The diametrically opposed circumstances they face have a cause and effect relationship that cannot be escaped. You adapt to each environment almost seamlessly. Neither side is good or evil, they are just very different.
On one side, you have many struggling programs that face serious challenges in sheer numbers of participants and adequate experience and talent. On the other side, you have mostly large co-op teams with deep rosters and abundant experience and talent. There is no competitive balance and quite honestly not an even playing field.
In hockey vernacular we literally have a strong side and a weak side—which I prefer to call the other side. Population on the strong side is sparse and the teams who reside there are the only ones to have a legitimate chance at making it to the state tournament. Winning on the strong side is as plentiful as the miles logged in search of teams that can realistically challenge them.
When the two sides of the mountain meet running time is a constant and scoring is either humanely curtailed by the victors or exploited with seemingly no regard for sportsmanship. The fact that athletics are an extension of the classroom apparently escapes some coach’s reasoning. Double digit victories are the equivalent of the dunce hat and chair in the corner. It is a lesson in humility gone bad and embarrassing to both teams. Gaudy stats fill up the scoresheets and those lopsided scores stir up emotions. From one side unattractive arrogance can unseat confidence and from the other side comes reckless finger pointing and misplaced anger. It could be argued that handling success can be as challenging as handling failure. A 116-14 margin of victory in the first round of the playoffs is more proof of the grand inequity.
On the strong side, travel arrangements to the state tournament are often booked before the season even ends as if it were a family vacation. State tournament berths are more of an expectation, than celebration. Players on the other side sit in the vast emptiness of the Alliant Energy Center and dream about trips to the state tournament and what it would be like to make that dash to their goalie after a sectional final win.
As large co-ops rosters swell and junior varsity teams emerge, the divide and animosity between the strong side and the other side widens. To be clear there are no villains here, just a competitive abyss that often brings out the worst from both sides.
On the other side of the WIAA girl’s hockey mountain all teams face one or more significant challenges, most unfamiliar to those on the strong side. Their gauntlet often includes rosters hovering around a dozen or so players. Many have a marginal portion of their rosters occupied by inexperienced players coerced into playing the game to keep programs a float. Others will be tested by limited ice time, long travel distances between co-op towns and outlandish team participation fees. The skyrocketing cost of hockey can no longer be ignored or rationalized. It is affecting the growth potential of the game at all levels.
The few girls’ programs that are flourishing have key people in place within the youth hockey structure that have made sure girl’s hockey is treated with respect and equality. Neanderthal youth hockey boards that continue to treat girl’s hockey like an afterthought are perhaps the biggest threat to growing the girl’s game. Even at the high school level many programs have not achieved the equality that Title IX legally guarantees them.
Finding a way to more evenly excavate this mountain is essential to the future of girl’s hockey in Wisconsin. Currently it would take a platoon of Sherpas to get a team from the other side of the mountain to the peak, also known as the state tournament.
Growing the girl’s game will be problematic based on the obstacles it faces. A solution will require leadership, planning and sacrificing for the greater good of the sport. Lastly, I believe it may take something the WIAA forbids, thinking outside their rigid box. A year ago, Mike Cowan suggested to me that their needed to be a girl’s hockey summit. He is right.
It starts with planning. All co-op programs (boys included) must be required to research their feeder programs and put together a spread sheet of projected numbers for the next ten years. That won’t guarantee any lulls in participation, but it will show you where the work needs to be done to become an independent program. All co-ops will also have an expiration date when it must split to help grow the game. If the WIAA continues to stick their head in the sand regarding this unregulated growth, then the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association’s should adopt and mandate it themselves.
Like lawyers, the language used by the WIAA can sometimes be difficult to translate. In their purpose statement, they talk about developing interscholastic athletic programs and the opportunities for member school’s participation. That sounds like growth. The only real growth we are seeing in girls or boy’s hockey is in the size of co-op teams. Total team numbers continue to decline in both.
One of the stumbling blocks, actually more of a titanium wall, is the WIAA’s adherence to their “uniformity of standards” mantra. The truth is that they only cling to that when it fits their narrative. Despite their claims all sports are not treated equally. Ice time and facility use is a factor quite unique to hockey. Few if any other sports must deal with the skyrocketing cost and availability of their practice and playing facility.
To move the girl’s game forward it will take sacrificing for the greater good of the sport. That means girls playing girls hockey and the state’s top players staying home and playing for their high schools. It means helping struggling programs with their numbers crunch by allowing eighth-graders to play. And finally it means co-ops splitting themselves as soon as feasible, even if means experiencing growing pains. These are sacrifices that become very personal and the greater good too often finishes second.
Any and all of this will require strong leadership from the WGHCA and a following of united coaches. I also believe we need to recruit Badger women’s coach Mark Johnson to take an active role in promoting Wisconsin girl’s hockey. As the architect of one of the countries elite women’s programs he could be a great ambassador for girl’s hockey in our state.
Our goal should be to improve the girl’s game and improve the quality of the product. To put every team on the same side of the mountain—so the degree of difficulty in their climb is relatively the same. Not equal results, but equal opportunity to be great.
Right now that reality does not exist on the other side of the mountain.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org