The Armstrong/Cooper team known as the Wings, showcasing red on its jerseys for Armstrong and blue for Cooper, listened to its coach during a timeout.
For the newly formed Armstrong/Cooper boys’ hockey team, the games are the easy part.
After a contentious spring and a summer spent trying to play catch up, the program finally is playing games that count. The Wings, as the cooperative is now called, are showing few of the visible signs of a team in its first year together, compiling a 3-2-1 record through six games.
Getting to this point, however, has been far more difficult that anyone imagined.
Before this season Armstrong and Cooper, the two high schools that serve the Robbinsdale district, have fielded separate boys’ hockey teams. But changing demographics in the district resulted in uneven distribution of potential players. Numbers within the Armstrong/Cooper Youth Hockey Association (ACYHA) were skewed heavily toward Armstrong, which represents Plymouth and parts of Golden Valley and Robbinsdale. There were no longer enough players within the Cooper boundaries — primarily New Hope, Crystal and Robbinsdale — to safely field a competitive team.
“We would have fielded a varsity-only team this year,” said Bill Rooney, who had spent 16 years as Cooper’s head coach. “We had only nine players who had played hockey growing up. We would have filled out the roster with kids who had never played competitive hockey before.”
The District 281 school board decided last spring to combine the two teams into a single program. That idea didn’t sit well with Armstrong supporters, who questioned the timing of the merger.
“We’ve always been a program that prides itself in not cutting players,” said Joan Evans, president of the Armstrong hockey booster club. “We have a large group of incoming players. We were already looking at making cuts. And now we were going to have to cut down players even more. We weren’t opposed to merging the programs. We just didn’t think it was the right time.”
Despite the opposition, the merger went ahead as planned. But with only a few months to get ready for the season, details that other programs take for granted needed to be worked out. One of the biggest areas of contention was the team nickname. Armstrong is the Falcons, Cooper is the Hawks. Neither wanted to lose its identity.
The solution finally came from Armstrong athletic director Patti Weldon.
“A lot of names were thrown out there, but the one the people bought into, with some reserve, was Wings,” she said “Both schools have a bird logo, and we can still keep that identity piece.”
Colors were selected — red for Armstrong, navy blue for Cooper — and uniforms were ordered. Armstrong’s Danny Charleston was retained as coach with Rooney on staff as an assistant.
When tryouts came around, 61 players showed up, battling for 38 varsity and JV spots. Just six of those 38 players hailed from Cooper, but those six, led by Wings’ leading scorer Trey Rooney, are vital additions to the team, Charleston said. The program also added a Junior Gold team for the first time, providing an opportunity to play for those who were cut.
Armstrong senior Cory Gilbert said it was tough to see longtime friends and teammates not make the teams but understood cuts are a part of playing high school hockey.
“It was hard to see kids get cut, but that’s part of establishing a program,” he said. “All the bigger programs have cuts. In the long run, I think it’s a good thing.”
“It’s made us a better program,” Charleston said. “It’s not about quantity but quality. We’re trying to building something here.”
For the players, the transition has gone smoothly. The youth program has been combined for nearly a decade, so many of them grew up playing together.
“It’s seamless right now,” Trey Rooney said. “I played with them throughout youth hockey. The jersey doesn’t matter. We’re just trying to come together and see what we are and what we can really do.”
Weldon said the team’s quick acclimation has been vital toward acceptance.
“The kids just want to play hockey,” she said. “That helped smooth the waters with the parents and the community.”
The schools alternate pep bands and cheerleaders for each home game. And fans of both teams are starting to buy in.
“At our first home game, you saw kids from Armstrong sitting apart from Cooper,” Weldon said. “Now, we’re all sitting together as one big group. That’s nice to see.”
Evans echoed that sentiment.
“It’s all about the hockey,” she said. “We’ve put our differences aside and we’re moving forward together.”
Jim Paulsen • 612-673-7737