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December 10, 2012

Hockey super conference splits into two divisions for 2012-13 season

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

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Kevin Shand and the Cranes from Cranbrook will play in the North Division along with Brother Rice, Catholic Central, Port Huron Northern and St. Mary’s.

Even with a product that is arguably the best in the state, coaches in the Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League have never shied away from change.

In most recent years, it came by way of expansion. This winter, the method was division.

Two of them, actually.

“By splitting into two divisions, we’ve more or less allowed our teams to expand their schedules and face more out-of-conference teams,” said Andy Weidenbach, the league president and coach of Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood. “This opens things up a bit, allows our teams to get involved in more travel and tournaments, and games against teams they would have otherwise not been able to face.”

It was time
In 2007, Warren De La Salle officially joined the MIHL, becoming the seventh team in a super conference known for some of the best hockey in the state, not to mention a bevy of state champions from one year to the next.

In 2010, an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s team that had won three state titles since 2005 became the conference’s eighth team, and last winter, perennial powers Wyandotte Roosevelt and Trenton High completed the expansion.

While the competitive balance and star-studded power of the league has never been stronger, scheduling out-of-conference games soon became an issue.

“With conference games and Catholic League games, we had two open dates,” DLS coach Dan Barry said. “I think by splitting into divisions, it’s allowing us to get more creative, to see some teams we wouldn’t normally see.”

The Pilots join the University of Detroit Jesuit, Wyandotte, Grosse Pointe North and Trenton in the South Division.

Cranrbook, St. Mary’s, Birmingham Brother Rice, Novi Detroit Catholic Central and Port Huron Northern make up the MIHL North Division.

Each team will play its four division opponents twice and play each team in the opposite division once, creating a 12-game opening in the 25-game schedule that can be used in any way.

Last year, for example, 18 of 24 games were automatically designated MIHL games. And for teams like St. Mary’s, Brother Rice, CC and DLS that had to play additional Catholic League games against one another, which didn’t count as MIHL games, scheduling extra teams was nearly impossible.

“I like it,” said St. Mary’s coach Brain Klanow. “The league has a little more variety now.”

With the new format, the Eaglets scheduled a January trip to play three games in the Wisconsin State Showcase for the first time.

Traditions remain
Essential to the realignment, though, was maintaining some of the league’s long-standing and traditional rivalries.

“That’s one of the things I like most,” Rice coach, Lou Schmidt Jr., said. “We’re grouped with the teams in our division that we’ve played for so many years. At the same time, we’re going to get to experience some new teams, too.”

Rice, for example, is traveling to play at Sault Ste. Marie High and Marquette High Dec. 14-15.

Cranbrook was able to schedule a two-game series with Calumet High earlier this season, while DLS played a pair of teams from Traverse City.

Weidenbach said, for the first time ever, the plan is to have no conference games scheduled at the annual MIHL Showcase in February.

“We’re also able to schedule some Division 2 teams now — teams that we could see come playoff time,” Barry said. “But we’ll still play Rice and CC, and the teams we’ve always played.”

Change not as drastic for some
Grosse Pointe North coach, Scott Lock, understood the need to change things up, though he still prefers the old way of doing business.

“I guess I’ve always liked playing games where every night it matters in terms of standings,” he said. “I get it, and I see why the changes were made, but I don’t know if it’s going to affect us as much as some others.”

Despite being in the South Division, North will still play Brother Rice, Catholic Central and Cranbrook twice this season, but only one meeting will count toward the division standings.

“We’ve historically played a lot of these teams anyway, so I don’t think we’ll notice a dramatic change,” Trenton coach, Mike Turner, said. The Trojans have also scheduled two games with Rice, CC and CK. “Truthfully, I’d rather play all these teams twice for league play, but this is better than giving it up entirely.”

The most dramatic difference is that there will no longer be an outright MIHL champion.

Weidenbach said two division titles will be earned, and, at least for this year, there is no plan to have those teams meet to end the season.

“We’ve all got the chance to expand our schedules and experience some different things,” Klanow said. “But when it comes to enjoying and competing against some of the best teams in the state, we’ve still got that right here in this league.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mike Moore at mmoore@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1038. Twitter Follow Mike on Twitter.