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As their winter season winds to a close, high school players and coaches in the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League (NVSHL) are focused on a final push to claim bragging rights heading into the offseason. The playoffs start in about a week, meaning players need to skate into top form if they want to do justice to the school names on their jerseys.

Yet it’s that concept of representing one’s school that has many of the league’s participants thinking about more than just power plays and championship trophies these days. While they’re grateful for the friendships they’ve forged alongside classmates, many of the players and coaches taking the ice are irked that they don’t really represent their schools at all.

Ever since the league’s inception 13 years ago, local public high school teams participating in the NVSHL have never been officially recognized by the Fairfax County Public School system as varsity or club teams representing their schools. They’re technically considered interest group clubs, organizations free to participate in whatever league they choose so long as it’s run independently from the teams’ high schools. In other words, public high school ice hockey teams can play as they please; they just can’t expect any level of support from their schools’ administrations.

Most of these teams aren’t looking for support in the form of funding. Becoming a varsity sport would be a dream-come-true, but they know the kind of robust budgets such a move would require are not in place to make that a reality anytime soon. Instead, they want to become club teams, which would put them on basically equal footing with varsity sports in terms of recognition from their respective athletic departments even as it would keep their self-funded status the same.

“We don’t aspire to varsity status,” said John Sherlock, who’s been coaching McLean’s ice hockey team since it joined the NVSHL 13 years ago. “We recognize in today’s environment that no one’s going to go on the hook to sponsor a hockey team. It’s just too expensive. We aspire to club status.”

According to Sherlock, becoming a club team would mean gaining the freedom to do a number of things that school-sponsored teams take for granted. Student-athletes on club teams receive varsity letters, make announcements at school and receive academic certificates, yearbook space for team photos, end-of-year awards at school banquets and more equal visibility alongside other teams. Guidelines are in place to keep interest club groups like ice hockey from reaping those benefits, although some schools enforce them more stringently than others.

Becoming a club team isn’t so simple, though. According to Bill Curran, the FCPS Student Activities and Athletics Director, there are a number of factors holding ice hockey back from its goal. For one, the sport simply doesn’t have the participation numbers necessary to warrant serious consideration by school officials. There are about 16 public schools and 250 athletes competing in the NVSHL from Fairfax County, numbers Curran says aren’t large enough to inspire change. Moreover, limited ice rinks make ice time a headache in this area. Reston Skatequest, Fairfax Ice Arena and Mount Vernon Rec Center are the county’s only rinks, which often forces teams to travel outside Fairfax to get ice time. Only one of those three rinks (Mount Vernon) is public, meaning safety concerns would be out of FCPS’s hands most of the time. Along those lines, the FCPS Risk Management Office renders ice skating a prohibited activity.

“There is middle ground on some things,” Curran said. “Things like you can’t be recognized in the yearbook. Well, you can buy an add in the yearbook. I can’t tell the yearbook who they can sell ads to and who they can’t. There are things like that that can typically be worked through. But the reality is, as a school system we can recognize what we can recognize and manage what we can manage, but we can’t manage everything. That just goes beyond our capacity.”

Sherlock maintains that since ice hockey teams like his are entirely self-run and already insured, high school athletic departments would not be taking on significant responsibilities if they added those teams as club sports. But according to Curran, the assertion that Directors of Student Activities would not be kept busier with another club sport is invalid. Oversight would come into play, particularly as DSA’s must monitor the rosters of their club teams just as they do their varsity ones.

“I can’t ask my staff at the schools to do any more than they’re doing,” Curran said. “This goes beyond ice hockey. What do I tell the cricket people who have 300, 400 people in the cricket leagues now? What do I tell the judo people that want to be recognized? At some point there has to be a limit to what we can and can’t provide.”

Curran, a hockey fan himself, says that while he’d like to add hockey in an ideal world, the reality is that the FCPS only considers new sports that are recognized by the Virginia High School League. The VHSL does not list ice hockey as one of its sports.

Yet that fact runs into complications of its own. According to W.T. Woodson crew coach Trevor Barry, the VHSL voted last month to no longer recognize crew as one of its sports. That leaves crew — one of only two club sports (the other being riflery) currently recognized by the FCPS — continuing its rapid growth in the county even as it ceases to be a VHSL sport. According to VHSL Director Ken Tilley, the decision to cease recognizing crew at the state level will be reconsidered at a meeting later this month.

Diane Kaylor, a parent of a freshman goalie on W.T. Woodson’s squad, has worked alongside Woodson coach Keith Dean to push for change. She says that players and parents aren’t asking for money or equipment; they’re just asking for long-sought recognition from the schools they play for.

“It’s frustrating as parents knowing that there are other club sports that get recognition from the county and hockey doesn’t,” Kaylor said. “What we’re trying to do is just level the playing field for kids who work hard as athletes as well as students.”

With so many obstacles in front of them, it’s clear that high school hockey supporters have plenty of work ahead of them if those intentions are to come to fruition.

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com