An uncertain future
Rugby’s high school-level boys hockey team turned in arguably its best season in program history this past winter.
The Ice Hawks finished third at the state tourney and set program-best records for winning percentage and victories at home.
What will the program do for an encore?
There may not be one.
It’s projected that less than 10 players will be available to play for Rugby next season in the North Dakota Amateur Hockey Association’s (NDAHA) high-school level league.
That’s simply not enough to field a competitive team, said Jay McClintock Jr., Rugby Amateur Hockey Association board president and coach of the high school boys team.
Rugby has always been able to put a high school-level team together, and when numbers were low, were able to pull up some bantam-level skaters.
However, those numbers are down as well, creating the real possibility that an Ice Hawks high school-level team may not take the ice next winter for the first time.
And that’s just next year. Looking further down the line, it appears roster numbers will be low for three years before rebounding.
This past year’s team had just 11 players, including a couple of bantam-level skaters who moved up. The team’s success was largely attributed to a big senior group and the good fortune to avoid injuries and sickness.
The board met last week, and has to determine over the next few months if there is even a realistic chance to get enough skaters to put a team on the ice. Parents want to know, so if there won’t be a team they can make other arrangements.
“It’s a tough issue right now,’ McClintock said. “There are so many angles to deal with.”
One possibility that has been discussed is whether the local program could make the decision to approach the Rugby School Board about seeking a high school hockey co-op with another school, more than likely Bottineau.
Bottineau, like Rugby’s youth hockey program, is also struggling to sustain its participation numbers. Bottineau’s high school fields a high school team. Bottineau school officials at one time indicated it would be open to talks of a co-op.
However, McClintock recognizes there is a lot of issues that have to be dealt with. One, whether the local school district would even be receptive to approving a co-op. Is it too cost-prohibitive; and would entering a co-op put the district on the spot to also add another girls sport to comply with federal Title Nine requirements for equal participation opportunities?
Two, what type of a co-op would be arranged. Would costs be shared equally and both schools would host games and practices? Or would Rugby simply be allowed to play, but would not have any games or practices at home? And three, does Rugby’s hockey association want to relinquish control of its high school-level program? A program which is also a revenue-producer in terms of gate admission.
Sandy Hageness, hockey board member, said Bottineau seems to be the logical fit since Bottineau and Rugby already co-op their peewee and bantam youth hockey teams. The programs also co-op to offer girls teams.
It’s an arrangement, for the most part, that has been positive, Hageness added. The two boards will meet later this month to review the seasons and likely will discuss next year and Rugby’s current situation with low numbers for its high-school-level program.
Another possibility is to contact Devils Lake’s school district, but whether that district is interested is uncertain. They already have a hockey co-op with Cando and probably would not be interested in a sharing games.
If Rugby’s program decided not to field a high school-level team next year, players in the program now could join up with other NDAHA-sanctioned teams, which is allowed. However, that may not be practical, since the closest team is Langdon.
McClintock said some parents have looked into moving to Devils Lake or Bottineau, if Rugby’s program won’t have enough for its own team, and no high school co-op is pursued and/or approved.
Adding to the pressure of a decision is that any route the board takes likely changes the future course of the local program.
If the hockey board decides to just simply not field a team next year, it may lose numbers and players to other programs or sports. If it pursues, and gets, a high school co-op approved, that could spell the end – for good – of Rugby having its own high school-level team.
Hageness said the mission of the hockey association is to provide an opportunity to play at every level and the drop in numbers at the high school-age and bantam levels is making that a challenge for the board.
“We want structure (in our program),’ she said. “We want parents and participants to believe that there is going to be programs at all levels and if they commit to hockey those opportunities to play will always be there,’ she said.
One promising sign is participation is healthy in the program’s young groups and the association’s learn-to-skate program this winter was also full.
McClintock said the program has enjoyed the rivalries and relationships it has developed with the other towns which also play in the league. And that would be hard to see end.
Other issues at play are whether the board wants to pursue major and costly improvements at the Al Wentz Arena, including new boards and glass, at this time, especially if there is a chance some teams won’t be using the program as much.
The board is expected to meet next month to sift through all the issues. “There is definitely a wide variety of things to talk about,’ he said.
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