Two varsity teams to bolster Canon-McMillan hockey program
It was an unprecedented solution to a problem an increasing number of local high school hockey programs are encountering.
The kind of problem the PIHL can only hope every school has someday.
Facing an abundance of players and not enough roster spots or ice time for all of them, the Canon-McMillan hockey association added a second varsity team for this season.
As usual, the Big Macs' top team competes at the Class AAA level of the PIHL. Now, Canon-McMillan also is fielding a team in the Open Class.
“It was a competitive decision,” Canon-McMillan hockey association president Bruce Ferguson said. “How can we put these players in a position on a team in which they're going to get to play at a high enough level for them to get better?”
Adding an extra team at the top was the answer the program, in conjunction with the PIHL, came up with. A domino effect has made it so that most of the players in the school's program are now playing against higher-caliber competition.
“We're trying it for the first time and going to see what happens,” Class AAA varsity coach Yuri Krivokhija said. “From my experience, when you play against better teams all season, it's better for your development.”
Canon-McMillan has a rich history in the PIHL and has been one of the top Class AAA programs over the past few seasons. The Big Macs won the final Penguins Cup awarded at Mellon Arena in 2010. The following season, Ferguson said Canon-McMillan became the first PIHL program to add a second freshman-level team (often, middle school-aged kids play on “freshman” teams).
Of course, as those players aged, the need for roster spots at the next level did, too. The PIHL approved organizations having multiple junior varsity teams. When Ferguson attended a PIHL board meeting in which he wanted to pursue this, commissioner Ed Sam suggested a second varsity team instead.
“It just allows more kids to play without turning them away,” Sam said. “It gives them an opportunity to play varsity hockey.”
The hierarchy of the Canon-McMillan program is almost akin to a minor league system. Players move on from the freshman program to junior varsity, then to the Open Class varsity team and finally to the Class AAA team. There are exceptions — some kids have the ability to compete at the highest level of the program as ninth-graders, for example.
Nick Godfrey coached Canon-McMillan's junior varsity team last year. Now he's coaching the Open Class varsity team. Godfrey said the junior varsity team lost a total of four games over the past two seasons. In effect, the team that is playing in the varsity Open Class is exactly the group that would have been the Big Macs' junior varsity team.
“It's an exciting time for them — and an exciting challenge as well,” Godfrey said. “You can't coach some things. Sometimes they have to learn from experience — and that only happens if you have a good level of competition.”
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.