Over the past five-plus seasons, the current FCIAC ice hockey schedule has not been kind to the league’s weaker programs playing in CIAC’s lowest Division III.
Since the 2014-2015 season, Division III FCIAC teams are 7-103-1 against those playing in the CIAC’s highest Division I, and have been outscored 734-162. Average scores are approximately 7-1.
“What’s the benefit for either team in those games?” Trumbull coach Greg Maxey, whose team plays in Division II, asks rhetorically. “There’s really not.”
That’s a question asked yearly across the state by fans, media and even the FCIAC coaches themselves.
“It’s a topic that comes up at every meeting with the FCIAC coaches,” said Shaun Gallagher, head coach of Division I Ridgefield.
Maxey and Gallagher put together a proposal last offseason which would revamp the schedule that currently requires all 12 FCIAC teams — which includes six Division I programs, two in Division II and four in Division III – to play each other.
“It seems that everybody is in agreement that the Division I and the Division III teams should stay away from each other for the regular season schedule,” said Gallagher, who has been coaching at Ridgefield for 13 years.
The coaches’ proposal, which included research into the past years of play, was simple: Don’t allow the Division I teams to play Division III teams, similar to the way the nearby SCC/SWC league determines its hockey schedule.
The six Division I teams would play each other and the two Division II teams. The Division III teams would play each other and the Division II teams, meaning the Division II teams would play the same league schedule they do now.
“More recently, there have been more lopsided scores,” Darien coach Mac Budd said. “Everyone came to a consensus it would be better to do something.”
The proposal was passed unanimously by the coaches and sent to the FCIAC Board of Directors.
The Board of Directors sent it back – through email – unanimously declining it.
“It’s real simple,” FCIAC commissioner Dave Schulz said of the decision. “It’s our league policy that we play everyone in our league.”
Currently, FCIAC bylaws requires all sports programs to play every team in the conference at least once in the regular season. The exceptions are football, boys lacrosse and girls lacrosse, due to time constraints.
But the league’s hockey coaches believe the difference between the Division I teams and the Division III teams in hockey is different than the other sports. The CIAC, in determining its state playoffs, groups hockey teams by program strength with Division I traditionally being the stronger programs down to the weaker ones in Division III.
“When they have 24 kids on their roster to our 15, kids are going to get hurt,” said Mark Mangino, head coach of Division III Wilton. “I really think the FCIAC is putting themselves in harm’s way.”
Mangino said that while the Division I teams have players who have been playing hockey since a young age, he has players who began to play hockey when they entered high school.
“I will tell you I don’t like it because I don’t like playing the Division I teams that are better than us from a safety prospective,” Mangino said. “The FCIAC does a really bad job of keeping our kids safe.
“The past two seasons we have had at least one kid get a concussion, one kid break a bone, playing in Division I games,” added the first year head coach, who was previously an assistant at Wilton. “It’s not malicious. It’s just hockey.”
Trinity Catholic coach Pete Pinto agreed that’s injuries can result in playing these lopsided games.
“(Division III teams) got freshman on the team that are 85-105 pounds and you’re playing against a Division I team with just juniors and seniors,” Pinto said. “Having a big senior going against a freshman is crazy.”
Pinto has a roster of just 10 players and a goalie. Two players are freshman and one is a sophomore.
“I’m finding we’re not the only team with small kids,” Pinto said. “The FCIAC has to get away from that prehistoric thinking they have been doing for years.
“Who is that helping?”
Schulz, however, said the league hasn’t seen any data that shows that players on Division III teams are being hurt during the Division I crossover games.
“We haven’t seen documentation of injuries that are knocking players out of games,” he said. “I don’t think there is data that shows that Division I kids are knocking out Division III kids in those games.”
And, while the games have been one-sided, they could be worse.
“There are a lot of 8-0 games because we have a reasonable amount of respect for each other,” Maxey said. “Division I teams stop at eight, it could be worse.”
In addition to the lopsided contests and lack of any sustained success against the Division I schools is the impact the losses have on the Division III programs’ state tournament prospects.
To reach the state tournament, a team has to win 40-percent of its games (winning eight of 20 games) or be in the top 16 of the division. That typically happens in Division III since teams with fewer than eight wins qualify every year.
Over the past five seasons, teams with just four wins have made each of the Division III postseason tournaments, except for the 2015-2016 season when it took five wins to make the postseason.
Despite that, Schulz said that the teams have more than enough games to schedule games against teams in their own Division and reach the state playoffs.
“It’s about preparing for the state tournament,” he said. “By playing the Division I schools, they get better. They might lose, but they get better. We don’t see it as a big issue because all the teams make the playoffs, unless you go 1-19, 0-20.”
However, since the 2014-2015 season only one Division III program has won more than one game against a Division I opponent in a season, which was Staples in 2017 and 2018. The Wreckers accounted for three of the seven Division III wins over Division I teams in that span.
And the teams that have reached the postseason are typically stuck with a poor seed, thus playing road games.
“There are a ton of other schools that benefit from the FCIAC schedule,” Mangino said, “and they are the non-FCIAC teams.”
During the last six seasons, five FCIAC Division III teams have missed the postseason by three-or-less victories – they play six Division I games per season – while others have just barely made the postseason by a win or two.
Almost all of those teams lost five or six games against FCIAC Division I programs.
Division III programs are left with nine spots to schedule games against non-league teams and their goal is to schedule as many games against opponents of similar skill.
“Non-league games have to be games we can win and sneak into the tournament,” Pinto said.
Division I coaches say their Division III games don’t help their programs, either.
“There could be a period of two-to-three weeks when you’re playing lesser competition,” Budd said. “It can be hard to keep the kids focused on those games.
“You have to try to keep the tempo up in practices.”
The FCIAC hockey coaches stressed that it isn’t about just them.
“It’s not about one program, one division within FCIAC,” Gallagher said. “We are very interested in progressing as a league in the sport of hockey.
“We’re just working towards something, a better opportunity for the kids.”
But they also said that something needs to happen, as soon as possible.
“Something is wrong,” Pinto said. “Somebody needs to step in and fix it. The FCIAC has to figure it out. It’s just not helping anybody.”
|BY THE NUMBERS: FCIAC DIVISION III SUCCESS SINCE 2014|
|2019-2020 season||Rec vs. FCIAC D-I||Goals Scored||Goals Allowed||Notes|
|2018-2019||Record vs. Division I opponents||Goals Scored||Goals Allowed||Notes|
|Staples||1-5||5||34||Beat St. Joesph 2-1|
|Trinity Catholic||1-5||13||38||Beat St. Joseph 9-3|
|2017-2018||Record vs. Division I opponents||Goals Scored||Goals Allowed||Notes|
|Nor/McM||1-5||8||43||Beat St. Joseph 4-3|
|Staples||3-3||25||21||Beat St. Joseph 8-1
Beat Darien 4-1
Beat Fairfield Co-op 9-6
|2016-2017||Record vs. Division I opponents||Goals Scored||Goals Allowed||Notes|
|*West/Stam moved up to Division II|
|*Staples moved up to Division II|
|*Fairfield co-op moved up to Division I|
|2015-2016||Record vs. Division I opponents||Goals Scored||Goals Allowed||Notes|
|West/Stam||0-5||5||18||Won Division III state title|
|*Wilton was in Division II|
|*Fairfield co-op was in Division II|
|2014-2015||Record vs. Division I opponents||Goals Scored||Goals Allowed||Notes|
|Westhill||0-4-1||4||22||Tied New Canaan 1-1|