A "polarized" group of parents, coaches and Park Rapids Hockey Association board members voiced opinions on pairing with the Leech Lake Varsity Hockey program at Monday night's school board fact-finding meeting, the final decision on the matter to be made May 17.
Walker-Hackensack-Akeley is reportedly strongly in favor of the move. The Park Rapids hockey board earlier nixed the request on a 5-5 vote with hockey board chair Travis Floyd breaking the tie, voting against it.
Athletic director John Schumacher reviewed the "history" of the co-op talks, noting both programs face a low numbers problem, both eliminating Bantams.
Projections over the next five years show numbers of Park Rapids players dwindling. Leech Lake Hockey player numbers are also expected to drop in the near future. A minimum of 28 to 32 players is needed to effectively field a varsity and junior varsity program.
Under the proposed agreement, the team name would be Panther Hockey, orange and black the team colors.
Three varsity/JV games and two JV games would be played at Walker. Nine varsity/JV games would be played in Park Rapids. The majority of practices would be held in Park Rapids.
Sixty percent of program cost would be borne by Park Rapids, 40 percent by Walker. The co-op agreement would be for a minimum of two years. The co-op team would retain Class A status.
Pete Stahnke, the Park Rapids hockey team's head coach, "strongly" recommended pairing with Leech Lake Hockey. "The Walker hockey association is unanimously in favor," he told the board.
Stahnke explained many team members need to play on a JV team in order to progress. The co-op could bring back the possibility of a Bantam team. The team is playing with a minimal number of members, sometimes with a single player on the bench to relieve.
Six or eight players out due to injury, illness or ineligibility can prove "disastrous," he told board members.
Numbers in practice gives good inner competition, Stahnke said. Numbers develop discipline on the team - athletic and academic. "Without the numbers, if (players) don't come to practice, they know they'll still be on the team."
Co-ops, Stahnke told the board, teach lifelong lessons and create leadership. "To be consistent among the elite teams, we need the numbers. We can't count on recruiting.
"As head coach, I support a co-op. It's good for students and student athletes," Stahnke said.
Steve Hall, a 16-year member of the hockey association, said it's a difficult decision, "but the majority of the hockey association members don't want to pair."
He cited financial projections falling short by approximately 17 percent. "Costs keep rising, some dramatically, and there are very few reserves. We simply cannot afford the additional cost."
He estimated pairing would encumber the program with an additional $11,000 cost over four years. "Pairing is not in the best interest from a budget standpoint," Hall cautioned.
He also projected losing 10 percent of the players due to transportation and other issues. "Lower numbers mean lower revenue."
Hall said pairing will not add additional revenue. "It will change the Park Rapids Amateur Hockey Association forever," he cautioned. "The impact may be so great, the program may not be able to continue."
Floyd echoed the sentiments. "We're one step away from a financial breakdown," he told the board. "We would be taking on a large expense."
"Pairing puts more financial burden on our shoulders as opposed to WHA," Hall said, pointing out there has been no communication with the WHA School Board on the issue.
Floyd expressed concern with participation of Park Rapids players "if they have to go to Walker to play."
Craig Brand, who has coached for eight years, indicated support for the co-op "after listening to both sides.
"Pete wants to bring the program up - so people are scared to play us. We have a numbers problem," Brand said. "This is an excellent opportunity to bring numbers together for an excellent program."
Superintendent Glenn Chiodo reported receiving unsolicited donations of $3,500 over the next two years, if the co-op is approved.
Ed and Dave DeLaHunt spoke in strong support of the measure. "We could dominate in districts, sections and even state play," Ed DeLaHunt said.
"We're at a crossroads," Dave DeLaHunt said. "Grow or face a struggle."
Jeanie Coborn, mother of three, spoke in opposition. "Our mission should be about Park Rapids kids playing hockey," she said.
Roger Stewart, who submitted a letter of support with several parents' signatures, said a lack of a junior varsity team is "detrimental" to the program, "a major setback."
Former coach Mike McMorrow suggested recruitment as a means to build numbers.
But Stahnke said, "You won't get kids committed to the program through recruiting."
Kerry Johnson, and others in the audience urged support for the coach's decision on the matter.
"In a big group, the cream comes to the top," Ed Moren said. "Without depth, you're really in trouble. It's painful to watch the kids in Walker. With Pete's tutelage, you can have a state champion team."
Board member Gary Gauldin said, "It's about numbers and winning. I've watched hockey become a respectable sport... It disturbs me to see this polarization. We need to come together."
School board chair Sherry Safratowich shifted the conversation. "I'd like to see this many people at the regular meeting," she told the 50-plus who'd arrived for the debate. "We cut $510,000 from the academics budget. That's most important. But nobody was at the meeting. No comments. Now we're looking at adding, not cutting. That frustrates me."