High school hockey has undergone a major off-season reconstruction, highlighted by the formation of a new elite team league and the end of the long-running Metro leagues.
Nine of the top perennial powers have joined together to form the Scholastic Hockey League, a branch of the Illinois High School Hockey League (IHSHL).
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New Trier Green and Loyola Gold -- which have not played in an Illinois high school league for about 10 years, opting for an independent schedule -- are aboard the Scholastic League, along with Glenbrook North, Stevenson, Barrington and Prairie Ridge.
The Scholastic Hockey League also features Glenbrook South, St. Viator and the co-op Rockford Icedogs.
"This league is something that was long overdue. It was just time for a change, and I think it'll be a good thing for Illinois high school hockey," said Barrington coach Rob Hutson.
The ISHHL also now includes a North Central Division, a West Division and a Suburban Division.
The North Central is a mix of the remaining teams from the former Metro North and Metro Central -- and its top teams this season likely will be Highland Park, Deerfield, Lake Forest, Crystal Lake South and the co-op BG/H/W Stampede, which features players from Buffalo Grove, Hersey and Wheeling.
There will be 20 varsity teams and 18 JV teams, split into two conferences -- Mikita and Hull. With 38 total teams, this is now the largest league in the state.
The West Division will likely be led by Naperville Central, Sandburg, Hinsdale Central, Bartlett and Naperville North.
The Suburban Division is the former Illinois Suburban Hockey League (ISHL), anchored by defending state champion Glenbard (co-op), Benet, St. Charles (co-op) and Wheaton Warrenville South.
"I think (the new leagues are) the right direction for all of high school hockey -- in all of the divisions. I think more games across the board will be tighter, closer," said Glenbrook North coach Evan Poulakidas, president for the Scholastic League.
"Why don't the other Illinois sports do something like this? I think it'd be good for all sports, so more games are better, more competitive as opposed to blowout games.
"Games will be really close across the board this season. I think you'll see better games throughout the state."
St. Rita is the defending state champion after the Mustangs blanked St. Viator 5-0 last spring at the United Center.
St. Rita skates in the Catholic League, which this winter should be a battle for bragging rights and the Kennedy Cup between St. Rita, Benet, Fenwick and St. Viator. Providence Catholic also could capture the Kennedy Cup, and the Celtics certainly could surprise many come state tournament time.
New Trier Green -- which has won the state championship nine times since 1994 and most recently in 2011 -- is the preseason team to beat.
The Trevians' top players include Brian Enriquez, Drew Koch, Alex Peglar and Kyle Melton, son of the team's coach (Bob).
The Trevians will face stiff state tournament challenges from St. Rita, Loyola Gold, Glenbrook North, Fenwick and Stevenson. Sandburg might be the dark horse.
"I certainly would pick (the Trevians) to be the favorite to win state. But there are 10 schools who have a chance to win it all," said Poulakidas, a Lake Zurich resident in his second season in charge of the Spartans and his 13th overall coaching high school hockey.
Barrington's Hutson is convinced the rigorous battles that the Broncos will face in the Scholastic League will better prepare them for the rigors of playoff hockey in February and March -- regardless of the team's record in Scholastic League games.
"At the end of the day, I'm not worried about our record (in that league), nor do I think any of the coaches in that league are. We're worried developing a consistent competition model, and in the long run, it's better for the kids to know that they can't take nights off," Hutson said. "We once defeated St. Pat's 21-0. How is that good for our guys?"
The Scholastic League teams played preseason games in mid-September in Crystal Lake -- and Poulakidas definitely was impressed.
"If that's any indication of the hockey that will be played (in the league) this season, it should be quite an exciting year. The games were good, fast, and clean, everything you'd like to see in the sport," he said. "The thing with this league is, every night you can get beat, and get beat solidly if you're not there to play. So everyone always must come ready to play."
The nine Scholastic League teams were selected based on their performance over the past five years. "Traditionally, (these teams) had been the best teams around outside of the Catholic League," Poulakidas said.
The Scholastic League will feature 17-minute periods and ties will be decided by three-person shootouts. The West also will feature shootouts, if needed.
"Waubonsie Valley had more wins (last season) than the first-place team, yet Naperville Central got first place because it had better luck with its shootouts," said West commissioner Jim McKeague.
The West will feature 11 varsity and 13 JV teams.
There were 53 shootouts in Metro West last season.
"The fans loved them. They eliminated a lot of the ties that we had," McKeague said. "We're trying to be innovative and just trying to market good high school hockey."
The West will feature up to 10 outdoor Winter Classic games this season, McKeague said, at venues in Evergreen Park, Elmhurst and elsewhere. Plus, the West will expand its playoffs, adopting a best-of-three format to some degree.
"I think high school hockey is being reinvented this season, which is good," said McKeague, a Naperville resident who has run Metro West for about 10 years. "Everything we do is for the kids. We want to give the kids a great high school hockey experience. We want to grow -- both the league as a whole and the kids individually.
"It's going to be a challenging year, but it will be a good year. I know there's going to be some great high school hockey. Sure, there will be growing pains, as there always are with anything new, different. But overall, it will be a successful season and it's all for the better."
The North Central Division also will incorporate a best-of-three playoff format to some degree.
The Chicago Metropolitan High School Hockey League (CMHSHL) was formed in 1972 with four boys divisions: Metro North, Metro Central, Metro West and Metro Northwest. Metro Girls was added in 2005.
In 2010, Metro Northwest dissolved and most of its teams moved to the Metro West and Central Divisions.
Poulakidas said the Scholastic League might expand in the future, and that all original nine teams are committed to the league for the next four seasons. Then, teams can be voted out, based on performance.
Here's a preseason ranking of high school hockey teams, as determined by Ross Forman:
1. New Trier Green
2. Loyola Gold
3. Glenbrook North
4. St. Rita
7. Prairie Ridge
9. Naperville Central
10. St. Viator
13. Crystal Lake South
14. Mount Carmel
16. Oak Park-River Forest
17. Highland Park
19. New Trier Blue
20. Lake Forest