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Hockey arms race: Private schools dominate OHSAA hockey

Another season of Ohio high school hockey wrapped up on March 12 and 13. Each of Ohio’s four hockey regions sent their champion to represent them at the state’s final four tournaments at Nationwide Arena from March 10 to 12.

The final teams were St. Francis de Sales from Toledo, Upper Arlington from Columbus, the Gilmour Academy from Gates Hills and St. Edwards from Lakewood. The tournament ended in a victory by the Gilmour Academy Lancers over the St. Francis Knights to snag their program’s first state title.

While the Lancers won their first title, they are representative of a long-term, troubling trend in the world of OHSAA hockey. Looking at the final four teams in the tournament, one might notice only one of them is a public school: Upper Arlington, which was eliminated in a 2-1 double-overtime game by St. Francis.

Looking to the tournament’s recent past this is not a new trend. Year after year, the same teams come back to Nationwide to once again compete for the title. Typically, the end-of-year bracket will include two or three teams from private, usually Catholic, high schools, with the remaining spots occupied by teams from public districts. Even more commonly, these public school teams will lose in the semi-final game, leaving the two affluent and exclusive institutions to battle for the state title.

The most common participants at the end-of-year final four are St. Francis, St. Edwards and Saint Ignatius from Cleveland, with the occasional appearance by Walsh Jesuit from Cuyahoga Falls. The last instances of a public school winning the OHSAA hockey crown occurred in 2013 and 2012 when Shaker Heights in Cleveland and Sylvania Northview in Sylvania, respectively.

To find a final four where less than two private schools participated, one must go all the way back to 2013 once more, where 4 public school teams made up the participants in Columbus.

The divergence of hockey success in this state has grown exponentially over the past decade, to the point where only a handful of teams control the state tournament.

What makes these private schools so successful in scholastic hockey every year? The answer is simple: money and name recognition. These private schools, charging far higher fees and tuition rates than public schools, and typically with private (or at least very favorable terms with the public) facilities are able to train and compete at a higher level than their publicly funded counterparts.

Additionally, the consistent winning of these schools feeds into a self-sustaining cycle of name recognition. Students with true, professional or amateur hockey aspirations want to go to these places because of their perennial success. Thus, these students can be scouted and picked up by college or junior teams far easier than at a public institution. Private secondary school hockey programs are effectively predicated on a snowball effect in which success begets more success, and only a disaster at the administrative or coaching level can stop them. As a result, all public school competitors, which make up the vast majority of hockey programs in the state, are squeezed out of contention for state titles.

So what can be done about this while still making sure both private and public schools have equitable access to hockey? Perhaps the obvious and only rationally feasible option is to create a specific league which includes only private schools. There these schools can play against each other, matching their skill level with other institutions who will provide them with adequate challenges due to their equitable resources.

The ability for junior and collegiate scouts to quickly and efficiently identify prospects in these leagues would also be greatly enhanced. Additionally, public institutions would be able to play each other, and again be on relatively equal footing to make the season far more interesting. Hockey at the high school level should stick to what it is meant to be about: the love of the game. Instead of simply focusing on winning through a veritable hockey arms race among private schools, we should, as a state, return to a more equitable time that exemplifies the true spirit of “Hockey is for Everyone.”

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