Fewer than 400 boys played high school hockey in Colorado during the 2002-03 season. More than 600 did during the 2014-15 campaign.
But although high school hockey is enjoying a rise in popularity in the state, a major challenge remains: Many elite players are missing from the ice when schools face off.
Colorado’s best high school-age players often opt to play on Tier I club hockey teams instead of for their schools, in order to draw attention so they can advance to Major Junior and college hockey.
“It’s great to play for your local school and all that, but only a few areas have big-time high school hockey where people choose that over Tier I, like Minnesota,” said former University of Denver player Angelo Ricci, who is director of hockey operations and an Under-16 national coach for the Colorado Thunderbirds club team based in Littleton. “In order to play junior hockey, you have to gain exposure, and you usually gain exposure, at least now, by playing Tier I. I don’t see too many scouts at high school games in Colorado.”
Baker Shore, a 16-year-old student at Kent Denver, and Colby Bukes, a 17-year-old who attends Arapahoe High, play on Ricci’s Tier I team. Neither considered playing high school hockey.
“Tier I is just more competitive,” said Bukes. “It’s a little more skilled and talented than high school hockey. I feel like in Colorado, college and the next-level scouts like Tier I or club level hockey.”
Tier I travel and commitments do not allow time to also play high school hockey, Ricci said.Tier I play could cost families between $14,000 and $20,000, depending on travel, so players need to be dedicated.
Both Shore, who has three older brothers who have played at the University of Denver, and Bukes say the higher level of competition and exposure are the chief reasons for choosing Tier I hockey.
“There is a little more involved as far as the (on-ice) development in Tier I, the off-ice strength and conditioning, and obviously you are traveling around to play the top teams in the country and play in front of premier, college or whatever scouts,” said Derek Robinson, director of hockey operations for the Rocky Mountain Roughriders, based in Westminster.
“It’s really the development and exposure piece that is really the difference,” added Robinson, who is a former high school coach at Colorado Academy and Mullen. “High school hockey is a great alternative for those players who want to enjoy the game and compete for their high school in front of their friends.”
Some players double up and play at the Tier II club level and high school hockey despite seasons that coincide.
Mountain Vista senior Tanner Gillis is one of those athletes.
“It’s not too bad because my Vista coach talks with my club coach and kind of works out all the conflicts, but I know for other guys, it is kind of a struggle,” said Gillis,who plays for a club team based in the Littleton Hockey Association. “It feels good to be a part of your school and play for your school. Usually the practices are spread out, but obviously it is tough on the body. I prefer club hockey because it is a little more competitive and highly intense.”
Eric Wilson is a senior captain of the Standley Lake team. He has played club hockey but is strictly a high school player this season.
“I figured it would be a good experience and fun to play my last year of high school,” Wilson said. “I feel the level of play has increased over the past few years... it’s a good league to play in. It is fun to play high school because it’s a little bit bigger stage compared to just club.”
Another option exists for players who want more ice action but don’t want to choose between club and high school or don’t want to play both. The Colorado Prep Hockey League, backed by USA Hockey, has 20 teams and plays a fall schedule that doesn’t overlap with the Colorado High School Activities Association’s winter season. The CPHL is attracting players who used to play Tier II hockey.
Heritage High School coach and CPHL president Jeremy Sims said the game is trending toward more players choosing the option of playing in the fall league and then for their high school teams. All but the very best players will go that route, he believes.
“You’ll have your Tier I top-level kids and high school for everybody else,” he said.
Bert Borgmann, CHSAA assistant commissioner, said for many players, there is an appeal to the high school game that club teams can’t match.
“A lot of the draw for high school hockey is people are coming out to watch and kids are representing a school and not just a club,” he said. “That’s a drawing card for kids because they like to play in front of their friends and peers. I feel like we’re going to see one, two or three teams added each of the next three or four years.”
In the early 1990s, only 14 teams played high school hockey in Colorado. Today, there are 30 CHSAA-sanctioned varsity squads. Most of those are co-op teams that draw players from other schools within the district.
The momentum is building, and Castle View joined the CHSAA ranks this season. Next year three more teams will be added, though none are from the Denver metro area. Some teams sponsored by high schools even have junior varsity teams.
With this growth, some say Colorado is on its way to establishing itself as a high school hockey hotbed.
“That will happen without a doubt,” said George Gwozdecky, Valor Christian’s coach and former coach of the powerful University of Denver hockey team from 1994-2013. “Whether you are a kid in Minnesota, Massachusetts or Colorado, even if you’re a top-notch player, the next step after high school is to play a year of junior hockey. But without a doubt, high school hockey in this state is going to continue to grow, continue to develop its depth and develop great young players.”