Mariner skates remain unlaced

Homer High School will not have a Mariner hockey team this 2022-23 season.

Statewide, high school hockey has begun to ramp up. In Homer, the local hockey rink, the Kevin Bell Arena, has been operational for almost two months, with many age groups practicing regularly, adults playing in their league or drop-in games, and casual skaters taking to the ice for a fun afternoon activity.

However, something vital is missing from the Homer hockey community: the Homer Mariners.

Yes, as many have already noticed, there is no Homer High School hockey team this 2022-2023 season. Previously, the team had played in the ASAA Railbelt Conference of Division II. During the 2020-2021 season the Mariners won the state championship, and last season they got third place at the same tournament.

Mike Barth was the head coach the past two seasons. He also coaches the Homer Hockey Association’s U16 team, and would have coached the Mariners this year.

When asked about the conditions which lead to there being no team this year, he said, “There were not enough players to field a team at the Varsity level this season.”

In order to circumvent this issue, Barth said he communicated with the Alaska School Activities Association (ASAA) Region III board, requesting that Homer be granted the chance to field a Junior Varsity team instead. That request was denied.

Given this, it seems as though they would have had enough players for a Junior Varsity team, but not a Varsity team.

“I do not think the hockey community could have done anything to help get a team going this season,” Barth said.

Barth feels the pain of the team’s absence.

“I feel disheartened for all the players … This situation has been one of the hardest situations I’ve faced as a coach at any level. It is deeply upsetting to not have a high school hockey season,” he said.

For some of the players who are unable to represent the Mariners, there are other hockey opportunities— for example, the Homer Hockey Association’s 16 and under team (16U), which is meant for players aged 13 to 16.

As mentioned, Barth also coaches the 16U team.

“Despite not having a high school season, I remain focused on developing hockey players in our community,” Barth said.

Barth also said he hopes there will be a high school team next year, saying it seems likely there will be one, despite the numbers of players still being low.

Moreover, the ASAA Region III board “may place sanctions on Homer High School that could make returning to the league more difficult,” according to Barth.

Unfortunately, the hockey playing seniors of Homer High are missing their last year of representing their town because of these circumstances.

Owen Pitzman, who has been playing hockey since he was little, is one of the seniors who is missing out.

“I think that it is very unfortunate that the team was not able to form my senior year,” Pitzman said via text. “Being a senior I’m going to miss the whole school and the families coming to watch our games.”

Another senior, Elias Allen, has been playing hockey for 12 years, and had been looking forward to his “senior season.”

“I’m bummed about it,” Allen said. “It sucks.”

Another perspective on the dissolution of the team comes from the Athletic Director at Homer High School, Justin Zank.

Zank said the reason for not having a team this season is, “we didn’t have the bodies to put on the ice … We didn’t have the numbers.”

According to Zank, he only became aware of the low number of players available the week that practices were scheduled to start. After he discovered that there were not enough athletes to play, he said he “made the determination” alongside Barth that the season would be cancelled.

When asked who would be the coach for next season, Zank said, “I’m not sure.”

“We don’t have a coach now because there is no season,” Zank also said.

On the possibility of having a team next year, Zank said, “We’re hoping that we’ll have enough players to have a season.”

He didn’t mention anything about the possibility of sanctions which Barth disclosed.

The Mariners’ inability to field a team sends ripples throughout all of Homer; the impacts of this loss extend beyond the high school.

The Homer Hockey Association (HHA) is a nonprofit which owns the Kevin Bell Arena, one of only a handful of nonprofits nationwide that own and operate ice rinks. HHA relies heavily on members, the community and programs like Homer High School hockey in order to remain open.

Drew McClure, a Co-Chair of the Homer Hockey Association Advisory Board, said he feels the strain caused by the absence of the Mariner team.

“It’s a huge loss on multiple levels when programs like high school hockey aren’t able to roster a team,” McClure said via text.

During a regular winter season, the Mariner hockey home games usually draw substantial crowds, and the games fuel both the rink’s operations and a sense of local community pride.

“With regards to high school hockey, we are missing out on home games and the End of the Road Tournament, both of which draw a large crowd to the rink. It’s those kind of events, especially at the high school level, that help showcase how pivotal our rink is to the community,” McClure said.

“A lot of youth players attend the high school games and look up to or admire the high school skaters. The lack of the program trickles down throughout our organization,” McClure also said.

Despite the mounting challenges and current disappointing circumstances, Barth remains hopeful for the future of hockey in Homer.

“We simply need more hockey players in the Homer area in order to ensure a high school team,” Barth said. “I am hopeful that we can grow the sport of hockey to a level that will support a strong and competitive high school team in the future.”