For Mount St. Joseph senior Brian Rice, there's nothing quite like lacing up a pair of skates, hitting the ice and flexing some muscle.
"It's fast-paced, exciting and its just the game to play right now," said Rice, the top player for the perennial power Gaels and one of the premier talents in the 74-team Maryland Scholastic Hockey League. "There's no other sport like it."
Lately, many of the area's top high school athletes have been echoing those sentiments, joining high school teams in record numbers.
In the MSHL alone, the number of players -- from 57 schools, most of which are public, in Maryland, 11 in Northern Virginia and six in Washington -- has increased from 120 for the 1988-89 season to 1,549 this season.
In that same period, the number of varsity teams has increased eight-fold, with junior varsity, novice and even five girls teams joining the mix.
And for the first time this season, the sport's surge in popularity prompted a state athletics governing body to elevate it to official varsity status, with the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association making the move under the umbrella of the MSHL.
"There was so much interest from our schools that we had to do it," said MIAA president Rick Diggs, whose organization fields 10 varsity teams, mainly from elite private schools in the Baltimore area. "They say lacrosse is a blue-blood sport. Well, in the private schools ice hockey is every bit as popular as probably football and lacrosse."
Diggs said the change in hockey's status was also due in part to a liability issue, with some principals fearing legal repercussions in cases of injury, especially since most unofficial club teams were using their school names and colors. Now, in return for the MIAA's insurance coverage, the schools lend financial support to the expensive programs.
Compared to other sports, the costs are prohibitive, and usually it's the players and their families who foot the bill.
According to MSHL commissioner Don Gensler, the minimum cost per player is about $250 for a 10-game season.
Basic costs include ice time for five 1 1/2-hour home games (at about $225 an hour) scheduled between mid-November and the end of February and $70 per game for referees. That means a team must raise at least $2,000 for openers, and that isn't even counting practice time or equipment. For a typical player, sticks, pads, skates and helmets can run between $250-$600, and jerseys cost another $20-$40.
The bill for Mount St. Joseph's varsity and JV teams this year alone will be over $10,000, said varsity coach Gary Cremen.
The costs and insurance risk keep public schools from recognizing, in some cases even condoning, these teams. At some schools, principals have gone so far as to prohibit them from wearing the school colors or logos on uniforms.
What's more, if public schools were to financially support hockey, they would have to create an equal opportunity for girls under Title IX.
"Theres no way you can start a boys team without also starting a girls team, just because it would throw the numbers way out of balance," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "Given the nuts and bolts that would have to go down to do something like that, it would be an awful hard sell."
So most teams fall under the guise of a "club," basically forced to fend for themselves.
With the number of new teams outgrowing the number of new ice rinks by a 3-to-1 margin, one of the biggest challenges is securing ice time. Despite the addition of a third rink last year at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel -- the area's premier facility -- there is still a definite lack of playing surfaces.
"Its really boiled down to we've had more interest than we can accommodate," said Gensler. "There simply is not enough ice available for every high school to have an ice hockey team."
Lack of facilities has always been an issue in the Baltimore area. When the city's main rink burned down in the 1950s, area high school teams were forced to abandon the sport for three decades.
These days, that situation has improved dramatically, with nearly two dozen playing surfaces available in MSHL territory. Gensler said his organization can probably accommodate another 10 teams before the rinks reach their capacity, though it's quite possible that could happen within a year.
Many directly equate the improved availability of rinks with the surge in popularity.
Said Gensler: "Before new rinks were built, the number of private hockey teams, figure skaters and recreational skaters overwhelmed the rinks, and there simply wasn't ice left over to be able to have a high school league."
Games include three 15-minute periods and feature the same basic rules as in the pros, with one major exception. Fighting is not allowed.
If a player participates in a fight -- or even takes one swing -- rules mandate an automatic two-game suspension. A second fight means a player sits for three games and suspension and must face the league's board to appeal for reinstatement. And just like baseball, it's three strikes and you're out -- for at least the season.
The overall level of play isn't particularly high when compared to hockey hotbeds like Minnesota, but some teams, like three-time league champion Mount St. Joe, routinely send players to college or junior-league programs.
For the majority, however, it's just about getting out on the ice and having a good time.
"I just love playing the game," said Rice, who picked up the sport in third grade. "It's the best sport around."
Pub Date: 2/07/99