A new classification brings refreshed opportunities for hockey players in 2021

Aspen Ralston Valley hockey

(Kevin McNearny)

Among the many changes for high school hockey this year comes a very important one, one that would've been made even if COVID-19 hadn't reared its ugly head on planet Earth.

Hockey is growing in the high school ranks and because of that, an additional classification has added to play for the 2021 season. The sport is now split into Class 5A and 4A which signifies significant interest in the sport as well as increased opportunities for student-athletes, which is in line with the values of high school athletics.

"It's heading in the right direction," Battle Mountain coach Derek Bryon said. "I think if we can continue to grow both levels of 4A and 5A, we're going to put out some really competitive hockey and it only gives kids more opportunities to be successful as teams and programs."

Since 2017, eight total teams have advanced to the state hockey semifinals. Of those eight, three teams (Regis Jesuit, Chaparral and Valor Christian) have gone three times. Regis Jesuit had made the semis every year in that span.

With the growth of the number of kids playing and the programs that are starting throughout the state, the addition of a 4A class just made too much sense and gives coaches and players alike renewed enthusiasm for those additional opportunities.

"We're here in Crested Butte with a population of maybe 10,000 people," Crested Butte coach Billy Watson said. "We don't have a big pool of kids to pull from and even when it was just (one classification), we played those teams very competitively, but I think it gives our kids a new opportunity. It's a good way to do this, to classify those (bigger) teams."

This isn't a situation that's unique to hockey. In recent years, additional classifications have been added to sports such as girls lacrosse, girls golf, girls swimming, girls tennis, and boys lacrosse. There is consistently talk of adding additional classes in football, basketball, and girls volleyball.

It's an indication that high school athletics, as whole, continue to grow and see more participation.

As that happens, there will be a natural classification system put in place in order to maintain a level of competitive balance for programs throughout the state.

"These small mountain towns like ours, we're not going to have 200 kids at tryouts," Byron said. "We're going to take everyone that comes and to have the opportunity to compete against smaller schools that are doing the same thing is big for us."

Perhaps the most exciting prospect about an additional class is the addition of a second state championship game. In recent years, Ball Arena (formerly Pepsi Center) has hosted the state hockey championship and the opportunity to provide more kids with the experience of playing on the same sheet of ice as the Colorado Avalanche is something that everyone can get behind.

"Playing at any kind of NHL arena, the atmosphere is great," Watson said. "The kids feel like they're professionals and it's kind of cool. This gives them a taste of what it's like to play at that level and if they have that motivation to continue their growth, this will be great for the kids."