If the Lakeland girls hockey team is going to survive, it will need to find more skaters. The program’s future at LUHS was a topic of discussion at last week’s school board meeting.  

The question facing the Thunderbirds is whether it means recruiting more players or merging with Rhinelander and Antigo’s Northern Edge hockey co-op. 

With five seniors graduating, and one headed abroad, the Thunderbirds next year are looking at a roster of 11 — barely enough for two lines of skaters and a goalie, and that’s if nobody gets sick or injured. 

It’s not the first time the team has considered the plan. 

Lakeland already includes players from both Mercer and Tomahawk, but the team has still struggled with depth in recent seasons. 

Last year, Lakeland and Tomahawk turned down a proposal to join Rhinelander and Antigo’s Northern Edge out of concern that a larger team could mean less ice time for Thunderbird skaters.

“Question, and I’ll just put it out there,” board member Jon Berg said. “Has girls hockey run its course?”

Merging with Northern Edge raises a number of questions, like the cost of ice time and transportation to Rhinelander, where they would practice four times a week. 

LUHS athletic director Phil Updike said when he compared figures in the past, he found the costs of a merger to be a wash. 

As has been custom when teams merge, the host school — in this case Rhinelander — would provide the head coach, while those coaches from other schools would assist. 

Updike said Rhinelander has a strong and well-respected coach and encouraged the board to consider the merger. But not all school board members were sweet on the idea. 

“I just feel like joining the co-op instead of trying to recruit other players would be like giving up (on the team),” board member Emily Hallstrom said.

Co-ops can allow small teams to survive, but Hallstrom and others at the meeting questioned whether they jeopardized the future of the sport overall, keeping teams from growing their own programs. 

A staff member from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association confirmed the number of girls hockey teams in the state has been declining while the number of co-ops has been growing. 

Some co-ops, like Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids, two of the largest schools in the state, have been successful. But board member Shari Nimsgern said the comparison is apples to oranges. 

“They’re doing it to build a powerhouse. We’d be doing it to survive,” she said. 

This year the Thunderbirds went 7-14, with a conference record of 5-3, but were barred from the playoffs after receiving three game disqualifications in a season. 

The board has only a month to make a decision on the merger. April 1 is the deadline for co-op applications.

Mario Koran may be reached via email at mario@rivernewsonline.com.