When more than 35,000 people crowded into Coors Field on February 20 to watch the University of Denver hockey team secure a 4–1 win over Colorado College in the Battle on Blake, it was a buzzing atmosphere emblematic of the sport’s current standing in the Centennial State.
The game was certainly historic, as it was the first-ever hockey game at Coors, the first-ever outdoor meeting between the two programs, and the highest attended home sporting event in DU’s history. The prominence of DU and CC’s teams is itself a sign of the health of our state’s hockey programs—the two schools have nine NCAA titles combined, and together have 10 homegrown players currently on their rosters. But the sport is also exploding at the club and high school levels, proving that amateur hockey has a booming future here in Colorado.
There are currently 30 high school teams sanctioned by the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA)—nearly all of which consist of players from a handful of schools—and three more squads will be added next season. The start of the high school playoffs on February 26 will showcase the widespread talent within these top-echelon teams.
There are also many more club teams at various levels. For local high school-age players, club levels are broken down into three divisions—‘A,’ the lowest level and one designated for recreational teams; ‘AA,’ the level local CHSAA hockey programs and their corresponding clubs play at; and ‘AAA,’ the level where the best teenage amateur players in the state play.
“Five years ago, high schools used to play at a level that would have been considered ‘A,’ [or recreational level],” explains Regis Jesuit hockey coach Dan Woodley, who’s been at the Raiders’ helm for a dozen seasons. “But now the top teams are playing at [what USA Hockey calls] a high Tier II level, or a AA level. So there’s been a great switch in where kids play when they become 15, 16, 17 years old.”
The reasons behind the switch are partly emotional—kids want to play for their schools and experience being student-athletes—and partly driven by the merging of club and high school hockey into one cohesive experience.
As a case-in-point, traditional powerhouse club programs such as the Arvada Hockey Association and the Boulder Hockey Club have chosen to make their top team (a.k.a. their AA team) the same as the local high school team, enabling the squads to develop cohesion and individual talent on a consistent, year-round basis.
“In the case of Ralston Valley [High School], in the past the kids on that team would have been labeled Arvada Major AA [at the club level],” Woodley says. “So now, rather than be called Arvada Major AA, they just came together under the club designation as Ralston Valley in the fall and then they go right into the CHSAA season as Ralston Valley [High School].”
But despite the major gains made in CHSAA hockey due to the meshing of the high school and club hockey experience—and despite the formation of the Colorado Prep Hockey League in 2013, which allows high school athletes to play for clubs during the fall and has since expanded from six to 20 teams—the best collegiate prospects in the state are still playing with separate AAA club teams.
“I think it’s eons ahead of where it was 15 years ago, but the high school level is not where we go and scout local Colorado players,” DU coach Jim Montgomery explains. “It’s the Colorado ThunderBirds, it’s the Colorado Rampage, it’s the Rocky Mountain Rough Riders—the AAA club teams that have done a great job developing hockey players at the minor hockey level.”
There’s no denying the talent and escalating potential of the top high school teams—after all, Regis Jesuit and Cherry Creek each won a division of the USA Hockey high school nationals last year. But in order for the high school programs to catch up with those AAA teams, players would need to be allowed to compete for both, Woodley says. This would lead to an influx of talent into high school teams and create a system similar to that of puck-crazed Minnesota, where AAA teams shut down during the school’s season so players can compete for their respective schools.
“So far, the AAA programs haven’t shown any interest in doing that,” Woodley says. “They look down on the high school programs, and maybe rightfully so, because there are some teams that are certainly not capable of competing at any level of AAA.”
But regardless of where the talent is dispersed, the fact remains that the Colorado’s hockey landscape is as strong as ever—and both the top club and CHSAA players in the state are looking at increasing the odds that they could compete in future renditions of the Battle on Blake.
“There’s plenty of Division I college hockey players [coming from] Colorado, and I think it’s going to increase incrementally by probably 10 percent every five years,” Montgomery estimates. “And that’s a big number… that’s great progress.”