Colorado Springs area prep ice hockey teams are staying closer to home, and couldn’t be more excited about it.
After years of hoping from local coaches, the state’s four-conference alignment recently moved to six conferences of six teams. The Apex League is all Springs-area teams, while the Summit League mixes in Denver’s Colorado Academy and Pueblo County alongside Pine Creek, Lewis-Palmer, Air Academy and Cheyenne Mountain.
Previously, while their fellow Liberty athletes were regularly getting hyped for rivalry games, the Lancers’ hockey team’s only in-league area opponent was Air Academy, and they spent a solid chunk of time traveling the state for conference games.
“I think it does a lot of good for high school hockey in Colorado Springs,” coach Brian Straub said. “The hope is that there’s more exciting games to watch, night in and night out, and more exciting games for the players.”
While the Springs is made up of single-school teams that draw some players looking for a landing spot, Denver and other metro areas have advantages, southern coaches say. Some public, some private, those teams draw from a deep well of talent from many schools. Coronado coach Mark Tabrum had 18 kids try out for his roster of 20, while he said some schools up north have hundreds vying for a spot.
It’s an apples-and-oranges scenario, one that often leads to double-digit blowouts.
“Who does that game benefit?” Tabrum said. “(Now) the scores are very close, we’re not having lopsided running-time games. They’re competitive games. To me, that’s a positive.”
The move pleased Chad Mason, coach of Woodland Park. A less intimidating slate gives his second-year program a shot to get further off the ground.
“I was definitely excited about it. We’re a small, 3A mountain town school. We don’t have the depth or the talent that the other teams did,” he said. “We got beat up pretty good last year.”
This year, as Straub put it, the “big boys get to play the big boys” in Denver, while his Lancers get to play every team in the Pikes Peak region for the first time in recent memory.
That means the rebirth of old rivalries, and building new ones. Woodland Park is already eyeing a Jan. 5 matchup against Palmer at The Broadmoor World Arena.
“They beat us and we beat them last year. Now it’s a rivalry, right?” Mason joked.
Unlike last year, there may be more than one local team (Rampart) with a winning record. After the regular season, however, those powerhouses will still be waiting.
“Maybe making the state tournament is going to be more challenging, or you might be out after one game,” Tabrum said, “but for what the regular season has to offer, it’s worth it.”
“We’re creating a situation where we can schedule those nonconference games and have the opportunity to get that experience, but we’re not playing them every week.” Straub said. “It’s really tough to get any sort of momentum when you’re doing that.”
One day, Tabrum would like to see district championships. Eventually, Straub said he would like two paths to a state championship — one for single schools and one for multi-town “conglomerates.”
“But we have competitive conferences, and that’s the best situation we could be in right now,” Straub said.