The separation of church and state is now in effect in the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation.
That's because when the postseason tournament begins Thursday in the Amherst Pepsi Center, it'll mark the first time in Federation history that Bishop Timon-St. Jude, Canisius, St. Francis and St. Joe's won't be playing any of the league's public schools for a championship.
And that's a huge change for the one Western New York scholastic league that has proven over the years that private and public schools can indeed peacefully coexist in a competitive setting with high stakes.
"There's pros and cons to it," said Bob Rosen, who has coached Williamsville North since its first season in the then eight-team Fed in 1990. "There was nothing better than having one champion. Our Federation championship was something special to play in. . . . It certainly identified who was the best."
This will be the second straight season the Fed will have multiple champions instead of one.
The Fed will crown Large School Public, Small School Public and Catholic champions during a March 1 tripleheader at Buffalo State. The champs advance to their respective state tournaments, with the Catholic title game scheduled for 3 p.m. March 8 at Buffalo State.
The last time the Catholics played for a title all their own was during the 1989-90 season, when St. Francis beat St. Joe's, 5-3, for the Monsignor Martin Association crown.
Expansion is the reason the playoff format has been tweaked, according to league President Mark DiFilippo. The Fed has grown from 14 to 22 teams the past two years with all but five of the league's members public schools. The Federation will become larger next season with the additions of Lewiston-Porter and North Tonawanda.
"You have to adapt to the amount of new teams," DiFilippo said.
In previous years, a choice number of regular-season games determined which public and Catholic schools moved onto states regardless of who won the Federation championship. Last year, the rule was tweaked so that public schools winning playoff titles (large or small) could bump the regular-season designated tournament reps for the Fed's state bids.
"I'm torn," said Timon coach Pat Fisher, who during his scholastic career played in both the Monsignor Martin and Fed leagues -- helping the Tigers win the very first Federation championship. "Last year as a first-year coach in the league, my kids had fun competing for the small school championship going at it with different teams. On the other hand, you look at rivalries. There's no doubt our kids get up for the Catholic games. There's a lot of history between these Catholic schools and not just in hockey.
"I would think with this current format, everyone would be happy. We're all guaranteed our league games . . . and then at the end of the regular season everyone gets to do their own thing and determine their own [state playoff] fate and no one has to worry about a Catholic school getting to the final and dictating which public school represents Section VI at states."
Last year, North could have advanced to states had it beaten St. Joe's in the Large School final. It didn't, meaning Lancaster represented the section at states. Sweet Home beat Timon in the Small School final to prevent Kenmore East from participating in the state tournament. The Bulldogs would have been the section's representative had the Tigers, who open the playoffs Thursday against Fed rookie Nichols, beaten Sweet Home.
Confused? The format change takes care of that.
"I think this is great how they're doing it," said Ken East coach Kyle Pray, who guided Kenmore West to a Fed title in 2006 but didn't get a chance to coach in the state tournament. "The kids are excited [to have] the opportunity."
>Around the boards
* The top seeds for the playoffs are St. Joe's (Catholic), Williamsville North (Large) and Kenmore East (Small). Most of the seeds for the rest of the public schools playoffs were determined Monday, with Lancaster earning the No. 2 Large seed and Williamsville South earning the second seed in Small schools.
* North is 18-3-2 and ranked third in the state. The Spartans, who lost in the Fed finals the last two years to St. Joe's, have won three state titles -- the last one in 2006.
* Ken East (18-4-2, 13-3-2) is ranked sixth in the state and has been successful this season because it boasts three of the Fed's top five scorers. Mark Arnone (14 goals, 15 assists, 29 points), Chris Chapin (12-16-28) and Brett Rogers (13-21-34) lead an offense that averages over four goals per game. Ken East earned a bye into the semifinals.
* Perhaps the new playoff format will be the perfect medicine to cure Canisius of its postseason ills. The Crusaders haven't won a playoff title since 1989, when they upset St. Francis for the Monsignor Martin crown, and have reached just one Fed final -- a 4-3 OT loss to Ken West in 2006.
* League newcomer Hamburg (12-6-2, 11-5-1) is ranked ninth in the state small-school poll and has wins over original eight members Williamsville East and Timon along with two victories over Ken East. Junior Sean Gregoire leads the Bulldogs with 10 goals and 20 points.
* Under the old format, Catholic schools played each other 10 times for the title -- but seven of those matchups came during the Fed's first seven seasons. St. Joe's beat Timon in the last all-Catholic final in 2004.
>Hockey playoffs at a glance
Thursday at Pepsi Center
(4) Bishop Timon vs. (5) Nichols, 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 at Pepsi Center
(1) St. Joe's vs. Timon/Nichols winner, 7 p.m.
(2) Canisius vs. (3) St. Francis, 9 p.m.
Final, March 1 at Buffalo State, 6 p.m.
LARGE SCHOOL PUBLIC
Thursday at Pepsi Center
(9) Lockport vs. (8) KW or W.S. West, 7 p.m.
(10) Niagara Falls vs. (7) KW/WSW, 9 p.m.
Sunday at Buffalo State
(1) Wmsv. North vs. TBA, 1 p.m.
(2) Lancaster vs. TBA, 3 p.m.
(3) Orchard Park vs. (6) Clarence, 5 p.m.
(4) Frontier vs. (5) Niag.-Wheat., 7 p.m.
Feb. 27 at Pepsi Center, 7 and 9 p.m.
Final, March 1 at Buffalo State, 7:30 p.m.
SMALL SCHOOL PUBLIC
Saturday at Pepsi Center
(7) Amherst vs. (2) Wmsv. South, 3 p.m.
(6) Wmsv. East vs. (3) Hamburg, 5 p.m.
(5) Sweet Home vs. (4) W. Seneca East, 7 p.m.
Semifinals - Feb. 26 at Pepsi Center, 7/9 p.m.
Final - March 1 at Buffalo State, 1 p.m.
FAR WEST REGIONALS
March 7 at Pepsi Center
CATHOLIC STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
March 8 at Buffalo State, 3 p.m.