Hockey's growing in this state, and Castle View is leading the charge. The Sabercats, a district program in Douglas County, will begin varsity play on Saturday.
Their addition brings the total number of high school hockey programs in this state to 30 teams, an all-time high for the sport, which gained sanctioning in 1976.
"High school hockey has always been here; I mean I was in the league when there was only 11 teams," said Castle View coach Al Quintana, a longtime figure in the sport who has also coached at Bishop Machebeuf (2003-12) and St. Mary's (1987-93). "But youth hockey just exploded when the Avs got here. Now, the opportunity is there, like most major sports, to play year-round. ... So there's always something going on. And hockey has become that elite sport where it is year-round. I do believe the Avalanche coming to Colorado in the 90s was a big part of it.
"Now it's the opportunity for kids to play for their high schools," Quintana added. "Everybody wants to play for their high schools. With club hockey, your family is there, maybe a couple of friends. But you play for your high school, and you get 150, 200 kids at a game."
Denver East joined the CHSAA league last season. Castle View is the only new varsity program this season, but at least three more are set to join in 2016-17. Fort Collins will host a Poudre School District team, while Crested Butte and Yampa Mountain (in Glenwood Springs) will also field varsity programs.
Other areas of the state have expressed interest in adding a varsity program, so that number of new teams may still grow prior to 2016-17.
But starting a new program isn't easy. Just ask Castle View.
The team becomes the second program in the Douglas County School District, following the lead of highly-successful Mountain Vista. The new program will be fed by Castle View, Douglas County, Chaparral, Legend and Ponderosa. Mountain Vista's players will come from Mountain Vista, ThunderRidge, Rock Canyon and Highlands Ranch.
"The key here was trying to get ahold of a database for the players that go to our feeder schools," Quintana said. "When I finally got that, I started sending out emails and getting people who were interested."
Next step? Finding ice. Sparse ice time has actually been a limiting factor to the growth of the sport at the high school level. Rinks are already overcrowded as they are.
So Castle View will play out of the Colorado Sports Center in Monument.
"There was nothing available in the city," Quintana said. "We had to go down to Monument, and they were gracious enough to give us the ice time we needed. With that said, we didn't have our ice time scheduled until the middle of September, which was pretty scary.
"It was going to be one of those things where it was looking like we were going to have to have one practice at The Edge, one practice at the Ice Ranch, one practice at Family Sports," he continued. "And I felt that was too much jumping around, and I really wanted to have a home base that we could skate out of."
The schools "have been absolutely supportive," Quintana added, and the response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, he said.
"They're thankful there's a second school," Quintana said. "It gives their kids a chance to play high school hockey, whereas with one team, you have so many kids trying out for one team and there has to be cuts for the team. Now it gives people who may not have been able to play a chance to play."
Quintana's group will be young. He said the majority of his roster is freshman and sophomores. But the veteran coach said his upperclassmen will be the backbone of the team. Namely: John Conger, Hayden Wuthrich, Spenser Carothers, Adam Zimmerer, Colin Girard, and Damon Maruska.
"They're going to be supported very much by the underclassmen," Quintana said. "Those kids are pretty talented. They're all playing fairly competitive hockey. But they're going to have their eyes opened on Saturday," when Castle View opens the season at home against Pueblo County.
Conger played last season at Mountain Vista — he had three goals and four assists in 17 games — but opted to play his senior season at Castle View. Under state bylaws, Conger could have played for Mountain Vista against as he was a senior.
Conger will be Castle View's captain.
"He chose to help his home school," Quintana said. "I was just excited that John wanted to stay. ... And when we got a chance to see him skate, I was even more excited he was around."
Seven Klinkner, a sophomore, will be the team's goalie.
"He doesn't have any high school experience, but he's pretty skilled," Quintana said. "We're looking for him to take the reins."
- Regular season begins: Dec. 1
- Regular season ends: Feb. 20
- Championship game: March 5, Budweiser Events Center (Loveland)
- Preseason rankings
- Defending champion: Cherry Creek
- Preseason No. 1: Monarch
- Returning all-state players: Blake Bride, senior, Monarch (1st team); Tony Salazar, senior, Ralston Valley (1st team); Zach Ross, senior, Dakota Ridge (2nd team); Garrett Devine, senior, Resurrection Christian (honorable mention); Sam Gartner, senior, Regis Jesuit (honorable mention).