Hockey committee recommends realigning the sport into four divisions based on performance

Monarch Dakota Ridge hockey generic Boulder Valley Ice

(Ryan Casey/CHSAANow.com)

AURORA — Faced with a growing gap when it comes to inequity in competition, the hockey committee is proposing a new alignment structure which would split the sport into four tiered divisions.

The ultimate goal of the plan is to encourage growth of the sport and provide stability for current programs.

In short, the proposal separates each division based upon a team's performance according to their average in the RPI (Rating Percentage Index) standings over the previous two seasons. The top eight teams would be placed into one division, the next eight into a second, a third group of eight into another, and the final group of eight into a fourth.

This mix includes two new teams, Fort Collins and Crested Butte, who will begin play in 2016-17. Slight changes were made in order to balance travel and geography.

"We kept competitive balance and travel at the forefront," said Bud Ozzello, the CHSAA assistant commissioner who oversees hockey.

And competitive balance has been a problem.

Currently, the sport is split into two conferences: the Peak and the Foothills. The Foothills has been dominant in recent years, producing the sport's champion for the past five seasons. In fact, the Peak hasn't even had a state finalist since Lewis-Palmer won the second of back-to-back championships in 2011.

Hockey's state tournament is currently set up as a preset bracket, with the No. 1 seed from the Foothills Conference meeting No. 8 from the Peak, and No. 1 from the Peak facing No. 8 from the Foothills. These matchups continue all the way until the No. 4 from the Foothills faces No. 5 from the Peak, and vice-versa.

This past season, the Foothills Conference went 7-1 against the Peak in those first-round matchups, and outscored their opponents 53-8. The lone win was No. 1 Peak seed Mountain Vista beating No. 8 Foothills seed Aspen 4-3.

But beyond that, and perhaps more striking, was the problem in the regular season which affected both the conference and non-conference schedule. Out of 298 regular season contests, 63 games (or 21.1 percent) were decided by eight or more goals. And 35 (11.7 percent) were decided by 10 or more.

So the issue is not only the current alignment, but also the competitive difference between the top teams and the teams that have struggled. As a result, many inside the hockey community felt the competition disparity needed to be addressed.

In fact, the topic turned into a five-hour conversation among the coaches association a few weeks ago, in which they hatched the idea of tiering the conferences. That model took hold at hockey's committee meeting last week, where they then tweaked it to use the two-year average of the RPI.

According to the committee's proposal, each team would play two games against division opponents, accounting for 14 matchups of the 19-game regular season. That leaves five open games, and the committee recommended a mandate that teams cannot schedule conference opponents during the non-conference slate.

The thought here was that the eight-team divisions would produce a much more competitive regular season if teams were playing like opponents 14 times. This would cut down on the amount of blowouts that permeate the schedule.

In terms of the postseason, teams that win their division — according to in-conference points (two for a win, one for a tie, none for a loss) — would get an automatic bid to the state tournament. Head-to-head would be the top tie-breaker in that scenario.

Then, in order to be sure a deserving team is not left out of the postseason, the hockey committee also recommended an expansion to a 24-team tournament. They modeled it after a format girls lacrosse uses (though that sport has a 20-team postseason field), giving the top eight seeds a first-round bye, and having seeds Nos. 9-24 play in the first round.

This format would leave 20 at-large bids, and those spots would be filled according to the final RPI standings of the regular season. Seeds Nos. 1-16 would be placed onto the bracket according to those same RPI standings, while seeds No. 17-24 could be slightly changed from those standings when taking geography and first-round division opponents into consideration.

The idea to split the sport into four divisions first became a topic at hockey's committee meeting in 2015. The group had been looking at various options since then, but the tiered concept caught fire in recent weeks.

"We really have to give credit to the coaches association, who brought that proposal forward to help deal with competitive balance," Ozzello said.

The new approach, Ozzello added, was done "with the vision of how we're going to grow hockey." He noted that hockey is one of a few unique sports in the Association which features "large district teams competing against smaller school teams."

Next season, the sport will have 32 teams — the most it has ever had. It is entirely feasible that hockey hits 40 teams within five years, as a number of new schools and areas have inquired about starting programs, and a few school districts that currently have teams have explored adding an additional program.

"We really want to encourage growth in the sport, as well as maintain teams that have historically played hockey," Ozzello said. "I really think this group is on the right track because they're thinking outside the box to deal with some of the unique issues the sport faces."

Ultimately, this proposal from the hockey committee will need to be approved by the Legislative Council at its next meeting. If that happens, the new alignment and postseason structure would begin with the 2016-17 season.

The complete proposed alignment is below.

Proposed hockey alignment for 2016-17

Foothills Peak Pinnacle Highlands
Regis Jesuit Resurrection Christian Standley Lake Valor Christian
Ralston Valley Aspen Air Academy Mullen
Monarch Doherty Steamboat Castle View
Mountain Vista Battle Mountain Liberty Rampart
Cherry Creek Heritage Summit Palmer
Dakota Ridge Cheyenne Mountain Fort Collins* Coronado
Lewis-Palmer Columbine Chatfield Pueblo County
Denver East Pine Creek Kent Denver Crested Butte*

* - Indicates new varsity program starting play in 2016-17.