It's another season of change for Berkshire County hockey.
The St. Joseph high school program is gone - and the Hennessy League with it, since MIAA-affiliated leagues must have a minimum of four teams.
What's left, though, is a trio of county teams that, at season's start, seem to have at least similar, if not better, numbers from seasons past.
When the St. Joseph program - which was in a co-op agreement with McCann Tech and Mount Greylock high schools - went under after last season, Hornets and Mounties were left without a home until a pair of programs shifted their own co-op agreements. St. Joseph players joined Pittsfield and Taconic high schools in the Taconic program, now referred to in Braves circles as "St. Pitonic."
McCann and Greylock players, meanwhile, joined the other two North County high schools, Drury and Hoosac Valley in the Wahconah co-op program - and not a moment too soon for the Warriors.
Wahconah won the last three Hennessy League championships and advanced to last year's Western Mass. Division III-A semifinals, but did so with just nine skaters and a goalie by season's end. If the Warriors faced a similar situation to begin the season, according to coach Don Disbrow, the program may have been discontinued like St. Joseph and Drury before it.
"I think it's very fair to say that the St. Joe program dissolving probably saved our program," Disbrow said. "In previous years, when I got down to nine skaters, we started with 12 or 13. You go in starting with nine, you could be in a lot of trouble."
Wahconah's roster lists 22 players, with 10 from McCann Tech, seven from Wahconah, three from Greylock and one each from Drury and Hoosac.
Drury had three players on last year's roster, according to Molly Meczywor, the school's athletic director. She's happy Drury students have the opportunity to play in the co-op program - Drury dropped its own hockey program after the 2009-10 season - but adds she is unsure what the future will bring when it comes to interested players.
"I know a lot of kids who are interested in hockey don't play in the high school league," Meczywor said. "A lot of them will play [outside the area]."
Taconic's roster has 24 players, including three forwards from St. Joe. The Braves weren't necessarily hurting for numbers, but coach Stephen Terpak said the St. Joe players on the roster have been a welcome addition, and he added that the team has a better feel to it than any other in his two-plus seasons behind the bench.
"It's a combination of attitude, eagerness to learn, openness to learn and having the parents on board," Terpak said.
Terpak grew up in Berkshire County hockey, winning a Western Mass. championship in 1977 for Lenox and graduating as the school's all-time leading scorer. At that time, the Hennessy League - which officially became a league and not a division in 1977 - had nine teams. St. Joe had won a Division II state title in 1973, and Pittsfield would claim the state D-III title in 1990.
Today, the league doesn't officially exist. No Berkshire County team has even reached a Western Mass. final since Taconic made the 2009 Division III-A championship game.
"It was fantastic," Terpak said of the league. "Because of the economic climate we live in, those days are probably behind us, but it is what it is.
"It's a little sad for all of us to feel it, and [to] know the numbers are shrinking."
For now, though, numbers are good - Mount Everett began the season with 18 players on the ice under new coach Aidan Gilligan - and there's youth in each of the three programs left in the Berkshires.
"I think we've got four or five kids just out of bantams for defensemen," Disbrow said. "It bodes well for the future, but we're young back there."
Both Taconic and Wahconah, in fact, have plans to put quasi-junior varsity teams on the ice when possible.
"Our JV team isn't going to be a competitive high school-type team," Terpak said, "but it keeps kids involved and participating in hockey, and that's our goal."