The Meadville hockey club — winners of eight state championships — hasn’t played in a state championship game in seven years, the longest drought in coach Jamie Plunkett’s 24-season career.
It’s a streak that’s not going to end for at least another year with Thursday’s public announcement the Bulldogs are leaving the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League.
The Bulldogs will play a hybrid schedule that will include a 20-game schedule as the Crawford County Youth Hockey Association Flames in the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League and another roughly 30 games as the Meadville Bulldogs, Plunkett said. That schedule will include the Bulldog Hockey Invitational, the BlackDog Cup game against Bethel Park and non-league dates with Ohio powerhouses St. Edward, St. Ignatius and University School.
Plunkett wanted to continue with the Meadville tradition but USA Hockey’s rules stipulate that a region can’t have separate teams at the same level, so the Bulldogs and CCYHA team will exist in a dual fashion.
Plunkett said the decision to leave the PIHL was based on getting better value for the cost, playing a more evenly balanced competitive schedule and the open rosters which will permit players from around the area to play for Meadville.
The con was giving up a shot to play for a recognized state title.
“That was really difficult,” Plunkett said.
Especially for a program that has its identity wrapped up with its association with the state playoffs. The players call Plunkett “Chief,” a reference to fire chief for the rides on the fire truck the team would get when it won its titles. The team also carries a toy fire truck with it during the postseason as a symbol of the ride after a state title win.
“We had (the truck) in our locker room this year,” sophomore backup goalie Eric Shilling said.
Plunkett has won 877 regular season and playoff games in his career.
Shilling said he was disappointed to see the Bulldogs wouldn’t be playing for a state title, but was happy to hear CCYHA players would be eligible to play.
As a member of the PIHL, only players who attended Meadville High School could play on the team. But under the new arrangement, any player from Crawford County could play for Meadville.
Part of Meadville’s blueprint includes rejoining the Lakeshore Hockey League.
“That’s our plan right now,” Plunkett said.
Meadville was a longtime member of the league until the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League mandated the Bulldogs leave the league in the late 1990s.
Ft. LeBoeuf coach Steve Pagano said he was excited to hear Meadville would be returning to the Lakeshore League, which includes Fairview, Harborcreek and Jamestown.
“It brings the league instant credibility,” Pagano said of Meadville’s return.
Meadville hockey club board vice-president Doug Nickerson said Meadville will play for a championships at several levels as members of the PAHL, which could include participation in a national championship.
“We’ve had great history and great players who have come through,” Nickerson said. “But life changes fast. You need to be able to adapt and be flexible. We wouldn’t do anything that would be detrimental.”
Nickerson said participating in the PAHL has benefits that outweigh playing for a state championship.
Nickerson said the level of play will likely be higher and the team will enable more athletes to continue their hockey career.
Plunkett, whose teams have gone back-to-back seasons without a playoff win and are riding a three-game playoff losing streak, said the PIHL had some outstanding teams at the top of the standings, but the depth of play across the board should be stronger in the PAHL.
“We are not going to have many patsies,” Plunkett said. “In fact, we might be the patsies.”