As a high school sport, ice hockey has experienced an awkward standing in Maryland throughout the years.
It’s not an official sport in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, which runs the public high school athletic system. But hockey is an official sport in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, which handles private school sports, and there’s a solid league there.
Students at public schools, though, have found their own way to play hockey, and it’s called the Maryland Student Hockey League. The group just started its 31st season and hopes to keep going for a long time. Boys and girls can take part in the league.
For Joseph LaCour, the executive director of the MSHL, one of the key elements of the league is giving teenagers the opportunity to play for their own schools.
In Maryland, because of the lack of opportunities for kids to play for their schools unless they go to private institutions, students are often forced to play for club or travel teams if they’d like to play hockey. LaCour, though, thinks playing for one’s own school adds something extra to the experience of hockey — or any sport, for that matter.
“There is something about playing for your school that resonates with every kid,” LaCour said. “If you score the game-winning goal in the state championship and you walk into school Monday, everybody knows your name. If you score eight goals for the travel team, the first thing they say is, ‘Where is your homework?'”
LaCour said there are 50 varsity boys’ teams in this year’s league, but girls have the opportunity to join those squads, too. In addition, there are 24 junior varsity teams with the same format. There are also four girls’ teams.
Leagues are organized by county or groups of counties. The Monocacy Valley Hockey League includes seven teams in Carroll, Frederick and Washington Counties. The Howard County Scholastic Hockey Association has eight teams, while the Eastern Conference features 14 teams from places like the Eastern Shore and Talbot, Queen Anne’s, Kent Island, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore Counties.
The Southern Conference has six teams overall from Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties, and the Montgomery Conference has 15 teams.
LaCour said the league aims for teams to play once a week, with Friday nights being the busiest time of the week. On Friday, Dec. 6, for example, 17 games were played throughout the league.
The league started in late October and runs until February, with the playoffs set to take place from Feb. 9-28. There will be two championship games this season. The boys’ championship game will take place at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md., Feb. 28, while the girls’ title game will happen on the same day at Ice World in Abingdon, Md.
The boys’ division has been dominated in recent years by Churchill, a Montgomery County high school. Churchill has won five consecutive championships and eight overall. This is the first season there will be a girls’ championship game.
Overall, LaCour said there are nearly 1,200 kids playing in the league this season, and the league tries to do what the public schools do in every sport.
“We try to follow the MPSSAA guidelines as closely as possible — academic eligibility is a big thing,” he said. “If you have bad grades, you’re not playing.”
LaCour also believes hockey brings groups of people together in different ways to support and help a squad and the league itself.
“You always have a core group in every team and in every league that is really [invested] in the league [or the team] and without them, we wouldn’t exist,” he said. “We don’t have much support from the school because we’re not a sanctioned sport, [so] we cannot take advantage of the school resources that would be available to other teams.”
That makes for tough sledding in difficult situations. If a basketball team has equipment problems, it can turn to the school’s budget for help. For a non-sanctioned sport like hockey in this league, that’s just not the case, and it makes things tougher.
But still, the league survives and finds ways to keep rolling. For example, there are multiple co-ops in the league. That’s where players come together from a few schools and play under the banner of just one. Fallston, in Harford County, is an example of this. That wouldn’t happen in the MPSSAA, but in the world of hockey, it’s the best way to keep the league going.
And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. The Maryland Student Hockey League gives students a chance to play a sport that’s tough to play in high school. They get good competition, but more than anything, the players get a chance to go out on to the ice. And the MSHL plays just about everywhere — 12 rinks in various parts of Maryland, to be exact.
“Wherever there’s a rink,” LaCour said, “we’ll play.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fallston Ice Hockey