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New CPHL season begins, priming another year of prep hockey

By John Wagner, SportsEngine, 09/01/20, 7:15PM MDT

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Hub exclusive: In its ninth year, the Colorado Prep Hockey League's mission remains the same: provide high school-aged athletes with more opportunities to play hockey.

Prep skaters fight for puck possession off a faceoff during a CPHL Early Bird Tournament matchup on Aug. 31 at the Sport Stable in Superior. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine

Prep skaters fight for puck possession off a faceoff during a CPHL Early Bird Tournament matchup on Aug. 31 at the Sport Stable in Superior. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine

Two Colorado high school hockey coaches were trying to solve a simple problem a few years ago.

Regis Jesuit coach Dan Woodley and Heritage coach Jeremy Sims were talking in the locker room about how they didn’t just want to send a high school team from Colorado to the national tournament, according to Sims. They wanted teams to compete for it.

Their solution was to work with a few other high school coaches from around the state to create the Colorado Prep Hockey League (CPHL). Since its inaugural season in 2012, the CPHL has competed from September until November — ending just before the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) season begins in December.

Woodley said the creation of the CPHL, which is sanctioned by USA Hockey and the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA), but not by CHSAA, solved another dilemma for high school teams: Youth players who were comfortable with seasons that spanned the majority of the school year suddenly had no early season option when they reached high school.

“The traditional hockey season in Colorado for a youth player was September until March, but the high school season in Colorado is December until March. That’s only half of the season that people were used to,” Woodley said. “With the CHSAA season not starting until December, a lot of these players would join club teams in the fall, so it was a struggle to get them to be able to play with the high school team. This league gives us a chance to offer a full season like the clubs offer.

Woodley, who serves on the league board as treasurer, added that they were not trying to get kids to stop playing association hockey, that their intention was to offer kids who want to play high school hockey the opportunity to do so for a full season. This seems especially impactful this school year, given CHSAA has pushed the start of its hockey season to Jan. 4, 2021, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the inaugural CPHL season, which featured just six schools, the league has grown dramatically. The league will have three levels of competition this year, with 18 teams competing in Tier 1, 21 teams expected to play in Tier 2 and at least six junior varsity squads.

The CPHL is meant to supplement the CHSAA hockey season, giving kids who want to participate in prep hockey the opportunity to do so for a full season — rather than playing from just December into March. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine

The CPHL is meant to supplement the CHSAA hockey season, giving kids who want to participate in prep hockey the opportunity to do so for a full season — rather than playing from just December into March. Photo by Steven Robinson, SportsEngine

The CPHL has done much more than just pick the Colorado team that will compete in USA Hockey’s High School National while extending the high school season. The league has spurred the development of players around the state, while also improving the level of high school teams statewide.

For players, the league season is a sturdy bridge linking individual development with team improvement.

“Summer is about putting in individual work, whether it’s getting stronger or faster,” said Bo Frederickson, a senior defenseman for Heritage. “The CPHL has competitive games so you start to work on the team work and systems while you continue working on individual drills. Then the CHSSA season is all about the team.”

Henry Fleck, a senior forward at Heritage, said the CPHL helps players prepare for the grind of the CHSAA season.

“Physically, the CPHL helps us get ready for CHSAA. But I think it is a bigger help mentally,” he said. “All summer we have done workouts — either individually or with your team — and you lose that competitive edge when you haven’t been playing the game for a long time. The CPHL season lights the fire in your belly for the season ahead.”

Jensen Rawlings, a senior center for Eagle Valley, said skating in the CPHL helps him scout the competition he and his teammates will face in the winter.

“You see how teams play, what their style is,” he said. “You can find out who the top players for a team are and prepare to face them. I make mental notes when we play a team in the CPHL season, figuring out what players are the leaders on offense and defense, and figure out their style and skills.”

The result is a higher level of performance — and not just by players participating in the league for the first time, according to Sims.

“When you have a kid who is a freshman or sophomore, and they compete for an entire year, they start at a higher level the next season,” said Sims, who is president of the league. “As they grow the level of skills gets higher. As a result, the level of hockey in the winter is higher.”

All summer we have done workouts — either individually or with your team — and you lose that competitive edge when you haven’t been playing the game for a long time. The CPHL season lights the fire in your belly for the season ahead.”

 

Henry Fleck, senior forward for Heritage

Coaches and players around the state agree that the CPHL also gives teams more time to become a more cohesive unit — both on and off the ice.

“Even when there was no CPHL we would put together a team and travel to tournaments, so I’m a huge believer in the value of the CPHL,” Woodley said. “You have to have an opportunity to develop, and the season is a journey where you learn how to compete and work with other people to try and win a title. For us, the CPHL is an opportunity to compete in games.”

Fleck said he has seen seasons where his Heritage team played well in the fall season, then carried that success into the subsequent CHSAA season.

“Everyone shows up at tryouts, and at that point in time it’s just a bunch of people who love hockey,” he said. “You’re trying to make a team, and throughout the CPHL you go through so much together that it becomes a family who loves hockey.”

For Battle Mountain coach Derek Byron, that added time together facilitates the opportunities for his team to bond.

“We pull kids from four different high schools, but once they’re on the ice they come together as one family,” he said. “When we have the opportunity, because of the CPHL, to come together for six or seven months, instead of just three, that’s really important.”

Byron added that the extended season offered by the CPHL has helped more than just his program.

“Just having that extra time to develop into a team has helped grow hockey in Colorado,” he said. “Those three months have helped teams get ready right away when the CHSAA season starts. Players get better and that raises the bar for hockey around the state.”

Sims said that increased parity has shown up in the CPHL standings.

“The past couple of years we have had the team that wins in Tier 2 move up the next year to compete in Tier 1, so the parity between teams has grown,” he said. “Early on, there were only maybe a couple of teams each year that could win the title, and now there’s at least eight or nine teams that can compete for the title.”

And that competition in the Colorado Prep Hockey League has players, coaches and fans excited for the season ahead.

“I love the chance to play ‘real’ hockey before the season starts,” Rawlings said. “You can work the kinks out before the CHSAA season starts and really start firing on all cylinders when that season begins. And any ice time is good ice time.

“When you’re playing against good competition, that’s going to help your game. And the CPHL is good competition.”

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