Matthew Sprague: Hockey strong in Berkshires, but there are still issues to face

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In the midst of what seems to be at least a partial hockey renaissance in the Berkshires, here are words of warning: There are still hills to climb.

Anyone following the sport locally can see that things are currently good. William Dadds' purchase of the Berkshire Battalion, and subsequent declaration that the Federal Hockey League team will be back in North Adams for Year 2, gives the franchise sorely-needed stability after a season of league ownership, coaching questions and on-ice overachieving.

Wahconah, in control of Berkshire County high school hockey for five years now, reached its second consecutive Western Mass. championship game. Taconic showed improvement this season, and Mount Everett thrived in its second year under Aidan Gilligan, reaching the postseason.

Youth hockey programs continue to make every effort to recruit and retain local players, and Ray Bourque's appearance at the Peter W. Foote Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink last Friday for the Bay State Winter Games seemed to raise plenty of money for the Northern Berkshire Youth Hockey League.

That the Battalion failed to make the playoffs in their inaugural season isn't really a failure at all. By most accounts, the on-ice product was fan-friendly and competitive. What counts for a first-year franchise, though, is in the financial records. Did the Battalion lose money in Year 1? (Probably, though most first-year teams do. Ask the Pittsfield Suns, who smartly expected to lose money in their inaugural baseball season before bouncing back.) How do they operate in the black in Year 2?

And who coaches this team? Dan Farrell seemed to be very well-liked, but was suddenly jettisoned after just 19 games, saying he was told that financial issues led to his ouster. Darin Lane stepped in as interim coach, but with his current city-ordered paid administrative leave from the North Adams rink for reasons so far unknown, the FHL's co-coach of the year may not be a sure bet to return to the Berkshire bench.

Berkshire's average home-game attendance may have been second-lowest in the six-team FHL this year at 480 fans per game, but — if the league numbers are to be believed — for a first-year club in a 1,060-seat rink, that's a solid turnout for an essential unknown with little advance promotion. The 2015-16 season, and what it brings on the ice, in the stands and in the books, will be more telling of the Battalion's success than the 2014-15 campaign.

The Warriors' success in the high school ranks did much to pull the Berkshires out of hockey purgatory. When the St. Joseph program went under after the 2012-13 season, the county was down to three programs, meaning the Hennessy League — a two-division behemoth 35 years ago, and still a force to be reckoned with state-wise 20 years ago — no longer existed.

Don Disbrow and his staff went from an incredibly short postseason bench in 2012 to a strong roster that reached the Division III-A state championship game in 2014. Were it not for Chicopee Comp's flawless execution of its game plan in this month's Western Mass. title game, WRHS might have returned to the state's biggest stage this year. And Berkshire County has churned out a lot of great players in recent years. Among them: Wahconah's Ryan Ouimet led the entire state in scoring in 2012-13. Andrew Leitch stood on his head in many a game in net for St. Joseph. Jake Corcoran made his presence known region-wide as a talented-beyond-his-years freshman for Mount Everett, and the Andrew Beaudoin-Dan Flynn-Nate Lapine line of forwards carried the Warriors a long way in the past two years.

Remember, though, that Wahconah is merely the host school for what is now a five-school co-op. With Drury, Hoosac Valley, McCann Tech and Mount Greylock students on the Wahconah roster, the team is essentially the Northern and Central Berkshire Consolidated Hockey Program. It's no different for Taconic (which includes Pittsfield and St. Joe students) or Mount Everett (which includes Monument Mountain, Lee and Lenox students).

Occasionally, if the puck went into the right corner at the Vietnam Veterans Rink, you could glance above the boards and see an old Drury hockey sign, for the Blue Devils program that was discontinued following the 2009-10 season. It was only recently replaced by a Wahconah hockey sign.

Maybe someone was clinging to the hope that numbers in each program would rise to the level that some co-ops — especially five-school programs that almost defeat the purpose of co-op agreements, and in some areas of the country foretell inevitable school district consolidations — would no longer be necessary. Maybe they simply didn't notice the old sign for a few years. Either way, the change is at least partly indicative of a hockey landscape that, while successful, is smaller and showing little sign that it will grow back to what it once was.

Contact Matthew at 413-496-6254.


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