The Mess that is NJSIAA Co-Op High School Hockey in New Jersey

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Everyone I have talked to over the past six weeks is in agreement over two things: Growing the game of ice hockey and creating a level playing field.

But a smooth skating surface in the Garden State it is not.

The introduction of co-operative programs, that is the combining of student-athletes from two (or more) different school districts to form a team, has taken on new meaning this season. Once designed out of necessity to save a program from falling by the wayside, co-ops are now being formed for no other reason than improving their talent level and administrators from the state on down to local conferences that are supposed to be policing the process are talking out of both sides of their mouth.

With the addition of 16 new co-op programs over the last five years bringing the state total to 34, 2017-18 marked the addition of an all-new Public C classification to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for high school sports. What was once classified as simply public or private school, has now been reshaped into four separate state tournaments: Public A, Public B, Public C and Non-Public, based on enrollment.

While questions continue to be raised on how, in fact, those enrollment numbers are calculated, what is not in dispute is the fact some programs are manipulating the system as roughly one-third of the 97 public teams in the state are now co-operative (30) — Say it ain’t so!

Newton-Lenape Valley celebrates its first-ever Haas Cup in 2017. (HockeyClan)

“I’m on the executive board for high school hockey in New Jersey and I don’t like the direction we’re going,” a coach in the state who wished to remain anonymous said. “It’s teams of haves and have-nots. Very few programs build their program from within. There are programs out there simply combining schools for the sole purpose of creating a super team.”

“I haven’t seen one co-op denied yet,” another coach said. “USA Hockey notes hockey in New Jersey hasn’t been bigger but we’re not developing any new kids, we’re denying new kids from playing hockey. There are coaches fishing for a competitive advantage trying to throw travel kids on their roster. That’s all they’re doing.”

Co-operative programs, which have stood alone in the past that are now being accused of joining forces include but are not limited to: Wayne Hills/Valley, Sparta/Jefferson, Colonia/Iselin Kennedy/Woodbridge, West Essex/Caldwell, Dayton/Brearley/Union, Nutley/Columbia and West Windsor-Plainsboro North/South.

“I could have co-opped each of the last 13 years. All I’d have to say is, “My kids have limited experience, I’m worried for their safety or we don’t have the numbers,’” Newark East Side coach Keith Veltre, who guided his team to a 3-13 record last season, said. “But what the system is saying is, ‘Don’t develop the kids, don’t work hard all year because you can take a shortcut by joining with another school two or three towns over because they have a handful of kids that play AAA (junior) hockey.’ We can’t allow co-ops to be a substitute for hard work. No team in any sport should improve overnight — build a program.

“I’m not against co-ops. There are teams that legitimately need to co-op, however, we need to create more stringent criteria before we just approve everybody,” Veltre said. “There is a co-op issue right now in New Jersey high school hockey. Let’s identify it, get to work to assist the teams who truly need it and weed out the ones who are doing it strictly for competitive advantage.”

In Pennsylvania, forming a co-op makes it a club team and also also takes it out of the running for a state title.

Right now, schools need only apply and present their case to the NJSIAA to form a co-op, something Assistant Director Jack Dubois is looking to change.

“Presently, the conferences these schools are in approve the co-ops,” Dubois said. “But the change I want to implement next year, that I am going to require in ice hockey specifically, is to make the approval come from league.

“Let’s say Morris Hills… they’re in the NJAC but also the Morris County Ice Hockey League (MCSSIHL). The Morris County league didn’t sign off on this. The NJAC did but NJAC doesn’t have ice hockey. It would have greater impact coming from the leagues,” Dubois said. “Wayne Hills, Wayne Valley… they’re in the Big North Conference, who I believe, signed off on them to form a co-op. But there are a lot of schools that are in different leagues — I want the leagues to sign off on it. It will have greater bearing and impact and they will have more information than the conference who could care less in many respects.”

Verona-Glen Ridge celebrates its first McInnis Cup title in 2016. (HockeyClan)

Dubois said his plans are secondary to the impending decision on a new co-op bill that will be placed on the governor’s desk on Jan. 16. The bill would allow public schools in the same district facing low participation numbers, financial constraints or safety concerns — or any other hidden agenda — regardless of sport or enrollment size — to merge teams at the varsity level without review by the NJSIAA.

“It’s going to change everything,” Dubois said. “If he does sign it — and he has until 12 noon on Tuesday — that will change the format for all co-ops.”

Dubois stopped short when the point of forming co-ops strictly out of competitive advantage versus necessity was raised.

“That could be. It’s certainly up to the reader but it’s pretty subjective,” he said.

Livingston coach Dave Conklin isn’t pleased with his team moving from large-school Public A to a new classification in Public B despite being among the largest public schools in the state with high school hockey.

“This is my 11th year and I have been in Public A every year and Randolph has as well,” Conklin said. “A good high school hockey team has nothing to do with the size of the school but if it’s based on school size there are 32 teams in Public A. We have 400 more than Sparta but (because of their co-op with Jefferson) they are in Public A.

“We want to keep it fair. We want the kids to determine the outcome of games with their ability,” Conklin said. “You don’t want people manipulating the system to try and gain an edge.”

Dubois tried to shed some light on the the enrollment issues.

“The enrollment numbers we used this year are from grades 9 through 11,” the Assistant Director said. “In previous years it was 10th, 11th and 12th. That is from legislation that was passed two years ago and implemented this year.

“Randolph, Ridge, Westfield, Livingston, Morristown, Morris Knolls — Public B is what the old Public A was, basically,” Dubois said. “Due to the number of co-ops, there is a larger Public A. You have to combine the figures which pushed all the stand alone programs, which have been pretty consistent, to Public B, which is now probably the most competitive.”

“Teams are merging because they have 14 kids — I had 10 on my entire roster for years!” a coach who wished to remain anonymous said. “We were in the league playoffs a few years ago, it was 2-2 going into the third period but we lost 6-2 because the other team had a AAA kid score four goals. My kids are in the locker room in tears. How do I look them in the face? They played their hearts out. If that other team didn’t co-op last year? I’m not saying we would’ve won, but to lose like that you just jumped five years worth of work that we do as coaches developing a kid.”

Randolph has appeared in the Public A State Finals seven times over the last nine years, winning five times. Despite a stand alone enrollment of 1,231 according to the NJSIAA, the influx of 17 co-operative programs with their combined numbers push them, Morristown, Princeton, Ridge, Southern Regional and Livingston, among others, to vie for the Public B title under the new alignment.

“For every good rule there’s somebody who’s going to take that rule and twist it,” Randolph coach Rich McLaughlin said. “Co-ops were originally a good idea for smaller schools with not enough kids and it worked for a while but now these co-ops are being put together too quickly without much investigation. It’s got too easy to co-op and when people see that, they use that to their advantage whether it’s parents, coaches…

“I don’t know any facts or figures but I know what people tell me,” McLaughlin, who secured the 400th victory of his career on December 23, said. “Some school had 50 kids at tryouts and they’re a co-op? How does that happen? It becomes harder and harder for a school to compete if you don’t co-op, if you don’t billet. I don’t want to cry about it but in a way I am. Some places are using this for something other than what the rule was meant to do. It’s out of control and no one is controlling it.”

“I hate the direction high school hockey is going in. They’re making it a regional sport,” another New Jersey coach who wished to remain off-the-record said. “Force my hand. Draw a line and say, ‘If you live here, you can draw from here to there.’ Coaches are not stupid. They’re looking around to bring in travel players — illegally. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to have a down year so we’re going to co-op.”

Ridge and Glen Rock won Public A and Public B state titles, respectively, last season but neither will get a chance to repeat with co-op programs taking over Public A. Each state champion was pushed down, including Glen Rock which will now skate for the inaugural Public C crown tentatively scheduled for March 4-5 at Prudential Center in Newark.

“A coach told me he was thinking about co-opping next year,” a retired coach with more than a decade of experience in the game revealed. “I said, ‘Why, you have 50 kids?’ He said, ‘We don’t have a goalie, our goalie’s only an A-level goalie.’ I really think some coaches don’t know the rules and others are just abusing the system, singing this song to their AD who take their word for it. That is a co-op for a competitive advantage. That is a super team.”

“Maybe, don’t stay in the league you’re in. Maybe, before you co-op, drop down a league,” the veteran coach suggested. “Maybe, you have to go to a lower league. Maybe you need a year or two develop. And if you get your doors blown off again, drop down to a lower league. Maybe the hockey is not as good but the kids develop. There’s ups and downs but no one can take their lumps. Is it that much of a boost to your ego?”

Morristown-Beard, after securing its third straight Mennen Cup in 2016. (HockeyClan)

Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley, with a combined 9th-through-11th grade enrollment of nearly 2,000, is drawing a lot of criticism in the hockey community after this statement made this summer: “Rather than having weaker varsity programs and perhaps stronger junior varsity teams, it made sense to combine both schools,” coach Joe Belger told North “We’ll now have a bigger and better program by both schools joining forces and we’ll strengthen our chances of competing with all the good teams out there.”

At the halfway point of the season, Wayne Hills/Valley is 7-4-3 and Belger has had time to reflect on the merger.

“At Wayne Valley we had 10 skaters and two goalies in the entire program. Of those 10 kids, two had never played a game of organized hockey before,” Belger said. “I have 31 kids in the program from both schools, four of which are goalies. I don’t have a whole lot of guys. If we formed a Varsity or JV program we could only have one or the other so to label this as an agenda to give us a competitive advantage is far-fetched.

“Numbers are going down, bottom line,” Belger said. “At some point if the numbers get bigger and we get enough for two teams we want kids to play but it doesn’t make sense to have a program with 10 skaters and two goalies. It’s not safe for the kids. There’s really no competitive advantage. We’re struggling. We’re not blowing anybody out. We want to play more competitive games and I think as this whole thing progresses, you’re going to see people jump on board because you want to have a full Varsity team, you want to have a full JV team — and that’s how you really develop players, by supporting them and putting them around other players that can play with them.”

On the flip side, several parents whose kids play ice hockey in the Garden State have expressed their disgust with their own local schools refusing to form a co-operative with another district. I have received numerous inquiries from Colts Neck and Keyport representatives who are on the outside looking in despite having an interest in the game.

“My son is a freshman. We have no high school hockey team. I approached the athletic director and asked if it was possible if we could put him on another town’s team — this is when I became educated in NJSIAA rules,” Michele Spangler said. “My AD was actually good with all this. He made a few phone calls. The plan was to co-op with Freehold Boro and Raritan. I was not happy nor was my son, however we had no choice. Back in October we were told it was a no-go. Freehold was not interested. Can you imagine how devastated my son was?

“My son lives and breathes hockey,” Spangler said. “Yes, he does play travel hockey but the travel season is a short one. All my son wants is to play high school hockey. Why is it you need an act of Congress to make this happen? Why should he be denied the chance to play a sport he truly loves just because of rules that are unfair to this situation? Most teams in our area don’t have enough players. Matawan has a plethora of players that cannot get a team either. Putting these boys on a team is not hurting anyone and not costing the town a dime. We as parents are willing to pay the cost — it’s a shame.”

The New Jersey Devils honor High School Hockey Captains during a ceremony on the ice during the first intermission at Prudential Center on Tuesday, October 25, 2016. (Patrick Dodson/New Jersey Devils)

“It’s the way the population of the game is going and I think that’s scary,” a long-time Public A coach said. “You say no to a co-op it’s like you’re taking away a kids ability to play hockey, the parents are lawyering-up and that’s why it’s picking up wind in the state. Super teams — now at least you have some level fighting back saying, ‘This is not ok.’

“This is what I get worried about, and what’s really important here,” the coach said. “You have people in some conferences that don’t care about hockey and a few teams that have a down year and two coaches look at each other and when there are no standards, no written rules in place… If a team that’s kicked our butt every year all of a sudden has a down year, you shouldn’t be able to just add a town so they can keep kicking our butt — rebuild!”

Conklin sees the issue of co-operatives as the tip of the iceberg.

“When it comes to the state, these guys bury their head in the sand,” Conklin added. “I have the rule that states recruiting at any level is illegal yet private schools recruit and still play in public leagues. Co-ops, that goes hand-in-hand with the private schools recruiting. Montclair Kimberley gave offers to a couple Livingston kids and one kid went, full-ride. They didn’t come to him for anything other than his hockey ability. I know for a fact they made offers to three members of the Colonials AAA team but Montclair Kimberley plays in a public division. Teams are doing it, they know they’re doing it and when I point it out they tell me to, ‘Let it go.’ I’m talking about a fair playing field. I lost two freshman to private school recruiting. Not fair, right?”

“Everybody comes to the table at these hockey meetings and you have to put your own interests aside,” one high-ranking hockey official said. “It can’t be about your program and your kids. There’s no more pride in your town. Tri-ops? Really? You’re playing a team and you don’t even know who you’re playing.

“I’m not saying all co-ops are bad,” the official said. “But you open Pandora’s Box and everyone is finagling to bring in the best kids they possibly can. Is that what high school hockey has become? You have a kid coming from the next town, comes to one practice a week but plays in all the games? Cmon, man.”

Belger predicts co-ops becoming more of the norm rather than the exception.

“What’s the number? How many players do you need to field a team?” Belger asked. “If you ever wanted to do something like the Minnesota state hockey tournament with good players all over the place, maybe we should allow even more co-ops so the product is better on the ice. Then you have something that can compete with club hockey.”

“Nothing is going to get done until a co-op wins a state championship then everyone is going to cry,” McLaughlin added. “We’re creating monsters. The idea of public school hockey is slowly slipping away and soon we won’t be able to compete as a single school. It’s turning into a club mentality. It’s going to be, ‘Who can we get, how can we get him?’ Morals are shot. People will do anything to win and it speaks a lot about what’s going on in society.”


Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS 

Special to HockeyClan


Main Image: High School Hockey’s Captain’s Night at “The Rock” October 17, 2017.  (Patrick Dodson/New Jersey Devils)


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