Colorado high school hockey has taken its game to the next level, coaches and players say.
Athletes playing in the Colorado High School Activities Association’s hockey leagues are more skilled and keep improving year by year.
“The speed of the game and the offense is more similar to the National Hockey League style,” Cherry Creek coach Jeff Mielnicki said. ”It’s not old-school hockey where the play (was) more physical.”
Heritage coach Jeremy Sims agrees the game has evolved.
“When I started coaching at Heritage eight years ago, to be honest, the hockey wasn’t considered to be at a very high level,” he said. “That, however, has drastically changed over the past six to seven years and now high school hockey provides a better experience, higher level of play and the opportunity to move on after high school if the player has the drive and determination.”
There are several reasons behind the upgraded quality of CHSAA hockey, according to those close to the game.
• The fall Colorado Prep Hockey League, which precedes the CHSAA season, gives players the benefit of a full eight months of development.
• A few Tier I or AAA elite players are joining high school teams and most Tier II or AA club players are on high school teams.
• The level of coaching has improved.
A growing draw
The CPHL, under the direction of Sims, the president, goes from August to early November before the start of the CHSAA seasons. There were 40 teams in the CPHL last fall, divided into three levels of play. The six-conference CHSAA alignment has 36 varsity teams and there are 31 teams in a junior varsity league this season.
Michael Gaudio played for Team Parker in the fall and the Legend senior is a now a forward on Chaparral’s co-op CHSAA team.
“The fall season helps a lot,” Gaudio said. “You build chemistry with your teammates and all of us have really grown since the beginning of August. The prep (CPHL) season lets us figure out what we need to do going into the CHSAA season.”
Gaudio played in the Arapahoe Warriors Youth Hockey Association, played a season with the CHSAA Castle View team and then joined the Chaparral team in his hometown of Parker.
“High school hockey now is larger and more intense,” added Gaudio. “You have students come to watch and you are playing more for your school now. You are not just playing for your club but for everyone that goes to your school. The skill level has definitely gotten a lot better. A lot more players are playing high school at a very high competitive level.”
Xander Sakadinsky, who played for the Colorado Thunderbirds club team, is having fun playing for his home school at Chaparral.
“High school hockey is the same speed and the same competitiveness,” he said.
“I definitely see more kids wanting to play high school hockey because of the environment with your school behind you and cheering you on. High school hockey has come a long way and developed a lot and a lot more people are leaving club and come to play high school.”
Chaparral coach Ryan Finnefrock, who played for Ralston Valley nine years ago, said times have changed.
“You are starting to see a lot of high school kids starting to choose to play high school hockey,” he said. “Ten or 15 years ago they chose the Triple A route, and then they started to realize it is pretty good product out there for high school hockey, the competitiveness has grown and the skill level is a lot better than it was probably 10 or 15 years ago.
“And AAA hockey is very expensive. It’s the difference between $15,000 and about $1,500. It’s cool to see some kids come back. Since I played and I graduated in 2010 you’ve seen the number of high school hockey teams almost triple. It continues to grow every year. You see programs like Cherry Creek, Regis and Valor develop programs, and we’re trying to do the same thing.”
George Gwozdecky coached for 19 seasons at the University of Denver and is in his fourth season as head coach at Valor Christian.
When Gwozdecky first started at DU there were limited high school games in the Denver area and he was not impressed with the level of play.
“High school hockey has gone from being something where players were not very competitive to being an option for top-level players to play,” he said. “Players are able to get quality coaching and a lot of ice time and be able to pursue their dreams of playing juniors and not have to pay extravagant rates and miss all kinds of school days because of the traveling all over the country.”
Coaches with credentials
Gwozdecky is one of many high school coaches who have coaching and playing experience at top levels. He played college hockey as Wisconsin and is the only person to win an NCAA title as a player (with Wisconsin in 1977) and an assistant coach (Michigan State in 1986) and head coach (DU in 2004 and 2005). He was an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL for two seasons before taking the job at Valor.
Mielnicki, a former major junior goalie in the Detriot area, is president of the Colorado High School Coaches Association, the Cherry Creek Hockey Association and has been the Bruins’ head coach for six seasons.
Sims was an all-state hockey play in Alpena, Michigan. and played college hockey at Ferris State University in Michigan and the University of Minnesota, Crookston.
Besides playing in two state championships games with Ralston Valley, Finnefrock went on to play at St. John’s University in Minnesota.
Ralston Valley’s Matt Schoepflin played four years at Lake Forest College. Mountain Vista coach Kevin Insana played at Northern Colorado. Regis Jesuit coach Dan Woodley was a standout professional player who had a brief stint with the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL in the 1987-88 season.
“When you look at the rosters of most high school teams in the state, you see coaches who have played and/or coaches a very high levels of hockey,” Sims said. “The hockey knowledge and experience you saw when you walk into a coaches’ meeting is very impressive and the benefits can be seen on the ice.”