What do you get when you cross a wolverine with a lion?
For two of the area’s largest schools, the hope is a competitive team in the Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation.
Lockport and Niagara Falls have put their longstanding rivalry on ice to combine forces in the Fed this season. Along with incoming Iroquois/Alden, they are the first merged programs in the league’s 28-year history.
“It’s good for the league and it’s good for Niagara Falls and Lockport, for sure,” said Mark DiFilippo, Fed president and Section VI chairman. “I think it will improve the overall product on the ice. And it keeps more kids on the ice playing hockey.”
Niagara Falls and Lockport have both struggled to compete in the Fed with dwindling roster numbers in recent seasons, despite drawing from two of the largest student populations in the region. According to Section VI figures, Niagara Falls is the biggest Class AA school with an enrollment of 1,523, and Lockport is fifth, at 1,038.
Last season, Niagara Falls went 1-11 in Fed games playing with the league-minimum nine skaters and one goaltender. Lockport graduated eight seniors from a team that struggled with depth and finished 4-9-1.
“We took our lumps,” said Lou Jacklin, a Niagara Falls assistant last season now co-coaching the merged team with Lockport’s Erik Musto. “We made it through, but I don’t think anybody was excited to do that again. So we were definitely pushing the merger, looking to keep the program going.”
With even fewer rising players to fill out this year’s team, a merger was the only way Niagara Falls could continue its Fed program, athletic director Joe Contento said.
Lockport had enough returning players to continue on its own, but athletic director Todd Sukdolak supported the merger, citing safety and performance concerns for underclassmen.
“I got tired of putting kids out there on the ice that shouldn’t be out there for a varsity program,” Sukdolak said. “You’re a ninth-grader, you’ve got a 12th-grader that can skate like a maniac coming at you and you get plastered — that’s not good for your development.”
The Lions and Wolverines have had a fierce rivalry across several sports in the Niagara Frontier League and Class AA division football. The hockey teams competed in club leagues before Niagara Falls joined the Fed in 2007 and Lockport followed a year later.
Musto, who played club hockey for Lockport in the early 2000s, said that rivalry has raised the competitive spirit in practice now that teams have combined.
“There have been times when we’ve teetered on the edge of healthy competition in practice, but that’s going to translate to the games really well,” said Musto, the designated head coach. “Everybody is hungry. Both of our programs have been pretty stagnant over the last few years, and the boys are sick of that.”
Several players are familiar with each other from travel leagues, which has helped accelerate team bonding, said Drew Merino, a senior captain from Niagara Falls.
“It’s a lot different, but we are all excited because we know we are going to have a more competitive team,” Merino said. “We definitely have more talent than both teams have had in a while.”
The shared desire to win has eased the animosity some players felt toward one another entering the preseason.
“I knew that if we didn’t merge, then it wouldn’t be happy. It would be 10 guys working for nothing,” said Drew Haseley, a senior captain from Lockport. “A lot more skill came together and it just makes everyone better. Now we have a full team and are ready to compete.”
Lockport/Niagara Falls’ 24-man roster is split equally with players from both schools.
“They have been at each other for a couple of years and trying to build chemistry is challenging,” Jacklin said, “but we are a real team. They didn’t come up through modified, JV and varsity. We had to make this team over 10 skates and they’ve done everything we’ve asked.”
Combined programs are the norm in the Western New York Girls Varsity Ice Hockey Federation. Seven of the eight teams represent three or more schools, and the league added a Niagara County team this season with players from Niagara-Wheatfield and Starpoint.
The Lockport/Niagara Falls merger agreement is for three years. Sukdolak hopes Lockport can develop enough players at the lower levels to from its own team after that. Contento said he is open to continuing the partnership for as long as it benefits both programs.
The two athletic departments are sharing costs for new jerseys, league dues and ice time. Any savings have been offset by travel expenses, Contento said. The team practices twice a week at Cornerstone AFCU in Lockport and once at Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena.
Six home games will be played at Cornerstone, two at Dwyer, and five at Hyde Park Ice Pavillion, including the annual Cataract Classic on Dec. 14-15. That will also include Lewiston-Porter, Starpoint and Sweet Home, last year’s Division II state champions.
“We are taking 37 bus rides this year,” Jacklin said. “We are asking the boys to make a big commitment. They are doing things that other teams don’t have to so we can be competitive.”
The travel schedule reminds Jacklin of his high school hockey experience. A Lewiston native, Jacklin played for St. Joe’s and won a state championship in 2004.
“There was no Fed hockey in Niagara County then. You had to go to Erie County,” Jacklin said. “It’s nice that there is a buzz going around up here now and people are talking about hockey.”
The 26-team Fed now has five teams from Niagara County: Lew-Port, Starpoint, North Tonawanda, Lockport/Niagara Falls and Niagara-Wheatfield, which won its fifth Section VI title and advanced to the Division II state championship game for the first time last season.
Lockport/Niagara Falls opens its first season with a nonleague game against North Tonawanda at 4:40 p.m. Friday at Cornerstone as part of the Hockey Day in Lockport celebration. The team will compete in the Fed Division II during the regular season (both teams were in Division III last season) and the Division I sectional playoff bracket.
The newest Division II team in the Fed, Iroquois/Alden, joined the league after competing as a merged team in the Western New York High School Club Hockey League. The program is not district-funded, but parents and boosters raised money to cover the team budget, which coach Brian Zittel estimated at around $35,000.
The roster makeup is 10 players from Iroquois and six from Alden, with only two seniors. Several of the returning players decided to remain with the club team. The first game is Dec. 7 at Northtown Center against North Tonawanda.
“It’s a young group,” said Zittel, formerly the East Aurora club team coach. “We were pretty much behind the eight-ball in terms of getting out of the gate.”
Expanding from its original eight members in 1990, the Fed grew to 26 teams last season when Starpoint joined and St. Mary’s returned after a two-year absence.
It turned out to be one of the best seasons in Fed history, with Sweet Home meeting Section VI champion West Seneca West in the Division II state title game, Niagara-Wheatfield reaching the Division I championship and St. Mary’s winning the state Catholic title.
“Spreading out further in Western New York and getting more kids playing for their school and getting recognized for their school is always a good thing,” DiFilippo said.
“People are realizing how good the high school hockey is, how fun it is. We are drawing some pretty darn good crowds to high school hockey games. The arenas are packed. It’s great for these other schools that are jumping into the fold to have that experience.”