Since the WIAA began sponsoring a state tournament in 1971, Wisconsin boys high school hockey has been comprised of one division.
For the past two decades, however, staff and supporters of smaller programs have petitioned the WIAA to change that format in hopes of allowing more teams to reach the state tournament and take in the overall experience.
The WIAA recently acknowledged those pleas in the form of an amended recommendation, committing to a two-division, eight-team state tournament format for the 2019-220 season.
Paired with the news to implement a 35-second shot clock in basketball and changes in state tournament seeding procedures, the WIAA announced the modification of the boys hockey divisions in a press release that summarized its June meeting. Viroqua could potentially play in Division 2.
The Board of Control voted 9-1 in favor of the two-division format that will run for two seasons on a trial basis before being re-evaluated. Under the new format, Division 2 will consist of the 32 programs with the smallest combined enrollment, and the remaining teams (currently 55) will play in Division 1.
What seemed like a progressive decision by the WIAA to split boys hockey into two divisions was met with some dissatisfaction from the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association. The WHCA discussed and presented a proposal to the WIAA, which then made amendments to it before approving its version.
According to West Salem/Bangor coach Eric Borre, who is the Section Four representative for the WHCA, the two-division system approved by the WIAA board is significantly different than the proposal the WHCA presented to the board. Borre, who served on an advisory board that helped draft the proposals, said a new divisional format has seen increased discussion among the coaches association for the eight years he’s been coaching.
According to Borre, both proposals from the WHCA had clear intentions — split the divisions equally, and increase the number of state tournament teams. The coaches wanted either two divisions with 12 state tournament teams (eight in Division 1, four in Division 2), or three divisions with 12 state tournament teams (four teams from each of the three divisions).
“What we want is 12 teams at the state tournament, because in our estimation, that’s what gets more people involved in high school hockey,” Borre said. “If we get four more teams down to state, that’s four more programs that get that experience and helps grow the game in the state.”
The amended recommendation from the WIAA is seen by the coaches association as a new format altogether, as the only similar aspect between the WHCA and WIAA proposals was to split the existing division.
Proponents of the two-division system believe it could deter the amount of rapidly growing cooperative programs in the state, or sway programs to withdraw from current cooperatives and play as standalone teams in a smaller division. Borre, however, believes cooperative programs are imperative in a sport like hockey, with has experienced a decline in the number of participants over the past few seasons.
“Part of the unique situation with hockey is that pretty much every school in the state has a gymnasium and a football field, but how many of them have access to a hockey rink?” said Borre, who said there is no plan for West Salem to drop Bangor from its cooperative program. “This might cut kids off from hockey, which again is not what we want. We want to grow the sport and expand it. We want more kids to get exposure and get to state (tournament).”
Borre and the coaches association have not heard why the WIAA amended the proposal to have only eight teams play in the state tournament, or why the divisions are split 55-32 instead of evenly as the coaches association proposed. Borre said there is some speculation among hockey coaches that the WIAA may be trying to maintain consistency with its other tournament formats. The WIAA, however, has added divisions in other sports without reducing the number of Division 1 state tournament teams.
There is concern from the coaches association that the WIAA’s two-division trial plan does not solve the original motivation for separate divisions, which was to increase the likelihood for more teams to reach the state tournament.
Splitting the divisions may address the competitive challenge of larger programs matching up against smaller ones that may have half the enrollment, but in all likelihood the powerhouse programs — large and small — will continue to do well and advance to the state tournament.
Tomah High School coach Todd Kirshbaum is among the coaches who want a 12-team tournament. He said his program gains nothing from the WIAA plan, which would very likely leave the Timberwolves in Division 1.
“The new divisions will not help Tomah out at all,” Kirschbaum said. “We will still be in the top division and still need to go through most of the same teams we do now to get to state.”
Onalaska coach Tim Ebner said the debate to change the one-division format has been discussed for the 20 years he’s been coaching. Ebner supported the proposals from the coaches association and is skeptical the WIAA system will help change the teams that play in Madison at the end of the season.
“I can understand the general thought of wanting to go to two divisions, but when you’re limiting it to the same amount of state teams, you’re not really providing more opportunities,” said Ebner, who is hoping the WIAA will recoup for the lack of state games by making regional and sectional games more visible.
Ebner also believes the new two-division format won’t stop cooperative programs from expanding in the state, and says co-ops will continue to rise until the number of boys playing hockey starts to increase.
“We’re in a situation locally where we may see even more co-ops happening within the next few years,” Ebner said. “Just based on the numbers of players in youth hockey right now that will eventually be moving up to high school, some teams won’t have the numbers. With each year, you lose more kids.”
It’s difficult to predict where the enrollment cutoff will be for the 2019 season, and what teams will fall into Division 1 or Division 2. Currently, along with Viroqua (enrollment of 355), Black River Falls (516), West Salem/Bangor (720), Sparta (794), and Onalaska (897) are area teams that could potentially play in Division 2.
“If we get four more teams down to state, that’s four more programs that get that experience, and help grow the game in the state.” Eric Borre, West Salem/Bangor boys hockey coach