By Matt Popchock


Recently the Open Cup championship banner celebrating the achievements of the 2011-12 Quigley Spartans was hung against the wall of the Beaver County Recreation Center at Brady’s Run.

The Spartans edged Indiana, 5-4, in double-overtime Mar. 8 at the RMU Island Sports Center to collect their second Open Cup in four years. However, the title they’ll be defending this fall will be their last such opportunity as a member of the Open Class.

At its recent Board of Governors meeting the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League announced its 2012-13 season will be the last for the Open Class, which commissioner Ed Sam started in 2004 to give more western PA kids a chance to play organized hockey. Beginning with the 2013-14 campaign, the PIHL will go back to three classifications–AAA, AA, and A–at which point every Open Class program will be reassigned to one of the three.

In prepartion for this merger, the league is rewriting its eligibility rules, including those governing co-op programs. A number of current Open Class members are co-op programs, which are teams comprised of players from multiple school districts due to manpower issues. Prior to the ’13-’14 season, the total male enrollment of all schools represented will determine where a given Open Class team is reassigned.

The ball of change has reportedly gotten rolling through Beaver County already. Word has it the Spartans will instead call themselves the Ambridge Bridgers for the upcoming season, since much of its roster will once again be players from that district, though head coach Jamie Dougherty and his staff will stay put.

I’ve talked about how hockey is a burgeoning sport in this area at the high school level, and this B.O.G. vote just further illustrates that point. This is a significant step in the evolution of the PIHL, which, once again, opened its door of inclusion with the addition of the Open Class, but missed the point by treating that fourth classification unequally.

That isn’t entirely their fault. There is no Open Class in eastern Pennsylvania with which to compete for a state title, thus cheapening the value of the Open Class postseason. It’s had its own rules and its own playoff tournament (two, in fact) as a result. But only once has the Open Cup been staged at an NHL venue–something at least one Open Class coach has argued to change–and generally, Open Class games are not always as heavily peopled or heavily promoted as games in the other three classifications, though I’ve certainly tried to do my own part to change the latter.

Consolidating the Open Class would not only save the league money (no more Chiefs Cup, Nailers Cup, or Open Cup games to schedule means less ice time is necessary), but it could make the league some more. In theory, if co-op teams were involved in the Penguins Cup Playoffs, the PIHL could, in a given year, see fans from three or more school districts spend money on tickets to one Penguins Cup Championship game, to say nothing of the other postseason games.

The Island Sports Center was packed for this year’s Open Cup, even though that event traditionally doesn’t get the same fanfare as the Penguins Cup Playoffs. Imagine if the PIHL could replicate that raucous atmosphere more often.

Furthermore, high school sports should be about the experience, and with this move, more kids will have the opportunity to play at CONSOL Energy Center, which could motivate more to play the game. Those kids, at the very least, will get more exposure, and be better developed as athletes by virtue of facing stiffer competition. When a team plays in the Open Class, it often does so for developmental reasons (i.e.: roster turnover). That dilutes the talent pool.

That, along with the fact that scoring is up and goaltending is more of a premium, creates negative perceptions about the Open Class. However, I would argue Quigley, which was a member of Class A several years ago, could have held its own against many of those teams this past season, and maybe even a couple of the playoff teams in Class AA. It had depth, it had defense, and it had discipline; the Spartans were the least penalized team in the PIHL in 2011-12.

Because Quigley is a team that pulls players from half a dozen districts, there is a possibility, due to enrollment numbers, it would be moved to Class AAA. Some parents are wary that might handicap the program, but it isn’t unheard of for an Open Class team to succeed there. State College once dominated the Open Class, winning the first two Open Cups ever awarded, before moving to Class AAA. Although the Little Lions haven’t yet gotten it done in the Penguins Cup Playoffs, they remain competitive and qualify for the postseason regularly.

In any event, it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how this new era of PIHL hockey plays out.

Meanwhile, Dougherty has been busy organizing the second annual Connor Johnson Memorial Cup, an exhibition game featuring the top players from Beaver County-based PIHL teams. That recent contest raised over $1,000 for a needy Beaver County family, and you can watch the video below to learn more about the coach’s involvement:

(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)