Where did our girls hockey players go?

To the Editor:

The Burlington Free Press recently reported that high school girl's hockey in the state is in major decline. Quotes from a VPA administrator and coaches point to a laundry list of problems, but no one seems to know what the root cause is. They need to point the finger at themselves. Their obsolete "Outside Team" rule has forced our state's best female hockey players to leave their high school teams to play elsewhere.

Female youth hockey registrations haven't come close to mirroring the decline in participation that we're seeing at Vermont high schools. On the contrary, in 2013, Vermont female USA Hockey registrations increased, and over the last ten years female hockey has experienced exponentially high growth, with continued, but lower growth rates over the last five. So while girls youth hockey registrations are climbing or at least holding their own everywhere, the decline in participation at our high schools is a uniquely Vermont problem. The fact that over the last six years, at least five or six teams-worth of high school players have fled the state to play elsewhere, should tell you everything you need to know.

Our state's youth hockey associations have done a masterful job of getting girls to play youth hockey. Their efforts have been greatly aided by the substantial rise of women's college hockey opportunities (Title IX is a major catalyst) and the success of our women's Olympic team. When the first wave of girls went to our high schools to play, they built our state's program into one of the most successful in the country. But our best players discovered that they barely had any college opportunities after high school. Girls and their parents learned quickly that they had to participate on "Travel" teams in order to improve their game and be recruited. However, the VPA's rule "Outside Team" rule prevented that.

In 2008, the VPA and the coaches association were presented with a compelling prediction that our best female hockey players would find other high school options if they didn't change the rule. Except for hockey, every high school athlete in our state has the opportunity to fully participate on travel teams. The reason hockey is different is because the travel teams play during the same season as high school teams, and no other sport has that situation (except skiers, who are exempt from the rule). We are one of the only states in the country who have not exempted hockey players, and a vast majority don't even have the rule.

The VPA denied the request and the decline began. Our best female high school players left Vermont high school hockey for New England prep schools in states where the rule doesn't exist, or to attend the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe. They have also gone in droves to South Burlington's Rice High School, who creatively responded by starting a girls prep hockey program of their own.

The good news is that Vermont has one of the top representations in women's college hockey per capita. Our girls are playing in top programs, and enjoying the benefits that Title IX provides. We have players from Vermont representing the USA in international competition. We send Vermont high school girls each year to USA Hockey's National Olym pic Training Center. The Rice Knights competed in USA Hockey's 2014 National Tournament, and two Vermont players who went to Minnesota and Connecticut for high school made it to the National Championship game.All of these players have two things in common - they are really good, and they left Vermont High School hockey.

I am the parent of three female hockey players. Our oldest stayed in Vermont and never got recruited for college hockey. So we sent our next two out of state - and one is playing D1 and the other will be able to play college hockey if she chooses. Sending our student-athletes away has done nothing good for our state. Their departure has decimated our high school hockey ranks, we don't get their contributions as athletes in other sports, and because they get into the best prep schools in the country, we certainly have lost the positive academic and social impact they would have made on our schools.

It's going to take years to repair the damage at the high school level that is now beginning to negatively impact our youth programs. But we can start to rebuild by changing the rule, or face the consequences and see the continued decline of girl's hockey in Vermont.

Gary Marmer



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