What Livingston County lacks in numbers, it more than compensates with high-level hockey teams
It is a county with only four high school hockey teams, so the odds are fairly steep that even one of them could reach a state championship game.
But what Livingston County lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in terms of quality.
Three of the four have combined to make eight appearances in a state final the last nine years. The fourth has advanced to the 2011 Division 2 quarterfinals. In the last two seasons, Brighton and Hartland each played for state championships.
Brighton is the standard bearer, having played in the last three state Division 1 finals, winning it all in ‘12 and ‘13 before losing a rematch with Detroit Catholic Central last season. The Bulldogs put Livingston County on the state map by winning the ‘06 Division 1 crown. They became the first public school to win back-to-back championships in the state’s largest classification since Ann Arbor Pioneer (‘84-’85).
Howell made consecutive Division 1 finals in ‘09 and ‘10, losing both times. The same fate befell Hartland in each of the past two seasons in the Division 2 finals.
While Pinckney has been overshadowed within its own county, the Pirates did win a regional title in ‘11 and reached the regional finals four of the last five years.
"It’s a great situation," Howell coach Mike Mantua said. "It makes us all better. All of the coaches in the area definitely support each other. If Hartland or Brighton is playing better, it gives us an opportunity to get better playing against them. It’s a great situation to have success in the area. All of the teams in Livingston County have a lot of talent."
So, what makes tiny Livingston County such giant killers come playoff time?
The high school coaches who inherit the county’s young talent all point to the outstanding development players receive from the youth programs, most notably the Kensington Valley Hockey Association in Brighton.
"The hockey in Livingston County is rich," Hartland coach Rick Gadwa said. "For whatever reason, it’s a hotbed. We’ve got the Kensington Valley Hockey Association right in all of our backyards. It’s the biggest hockey association in the country right now. It’s great to see that that much hockey is being played in this area. That has a part to do with it, as well as the coaching at the younger levels compared to other associations. We develop our kids better in Livingston County with the coaches who have been here. That’s definitely a reason for a lot of the success once they get to high school."
It also helps that the top three teams in the county all have arenas within four miles of their schools. Brighton plays out of the Kensington Valley Ice House, Hartland’s home is the Hartland Sports Center and Howell’s rink is Grand Oaks Arena. Pinckney is the only county team that has to travel a bit to get to its home ice, playing 18 miles away at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea.
"We’re kind of the black sheep without a rink in the neighborhood," Pinckney coach Ted Kroll said. "It’s hard to compete. It’s a fun county to play hockey in, but it’s tough. We’ve bounced around rinks for quite a few years. We’ve found a nice home; they gave us a nice locker room."
Like high schools throughout Michigan, even the most successful teams in Livingston County lose some of their best players to high-level travel leagues. But not only is there enough talent remaining to field highly competitive high school teams, but the success of those teams and the attention they receive helps to attract players who are on the fence.
"What it takes is you’ve got to get a group of kids who have played together growing up and want to play together in high school," Brighton coach Paul Moggach said. "When they come in, it makes a difference for you. It can’t be done without players who want to be here."
There is a chance that at least one team from the county will make the finals on March 14 at Compuware Arena in Plymouth.
Howell (15-5), with an early-season victory over Brighton to its credit, is ranked No. 24 in State Champs’ top 25, a power-rating rankings that includes all three divisions.
Brighton (11-7-5) and Hartland (14-6-2) are ranked in the top 14. The rivals will meet in the first game of the state tournament at 5 p.m. March 2 at the Kensington Valley Ice House.
Hartland (14-6-2) is coming off an impressive weekend at the Trenton Showcase, beating defending Division 2 champion Trenton, 5-1, and Hancock, 3-0.
"This weekend was absolutely encouraging," Gadwa said. "It was really good to see this. We just played Northville before the weekend. They’re a top-10 D1 team. We were able to win that game, 2-1.
It kind of started then. Then this weekend we got two big victories. The confidence level with our team is extremely high right now. Its perfect timing. We load up our schedule every year. We want to challenge the boys and make sure they’re well-prepared. We had our bumps, like we’ve had every season. To see them put it together at the right time is great."
Brighton and Hartland will get two tune-ups against each other before the state tournament. They will meet for the Kensington Lakes Activities Association championship at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Kensington Valley Ice House before matching up again on Feb. 25 in a nonleague game at Hartland.
"We’ve been scheduling them recently for the final week," Moggach said. "They’re Division 2 and we’re Division 1, so coming into the playoffs we wouldn’t see them again."
Hartland drew a first-round bye and will play White Lake Lakeland or Fenton on March 4 at the Hartland Sports Center at 6:30 p.m.
Pinckney dropped to Division 3 this year. The Pirates will open regional play on March 3 against Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard at the Arctic Coliseum at 7.