Greg Kirstein still has big dreams for the Capital Hockey Conference.

Kirstein helped form the central Ohio high school league in 2003 while working with the Dublin High School Hockey Association. The CHC consisted of seven teams in its inaugural season in 2003-04 and now, in its 15th season, is comprised of 14 varsity and 12 junior varsity teams.

Kirstein, a senior vice president and general counsel for the Blue Jackets, would like to see the league continue to expand.

"I know it might sound dramatic, but if a school has football, basketball and baseball programs, we would like it to have a hockey program," said Kirstein, a former CHC commissioner who now serves as liaison between the Blue Jackets and the Ohio High School Athletic Association. "You have a couple of wonderful organizations like the Blue Jackets and (Ohio State) Buckeyes and they keep bringing attention to the sport.

"We continue to add teams with New Albany entering in 2015, Springboro coming in last season and Columbus Academy playing a j.v. schedule this year. The interest keeps growing."

Much of that interest was sparked by the arrival of the Blue Jackets, who joined the NHL in the 2000-01 season and annually contribute money to local youth organizations via the Blue Jackets Foundation. In the late 1990s, only St. Charles, Thomas Worthington, Upper Arlington and Worthington Kilbourne had high school teams in central Ohio.

Before the formation of the CHC, Kilbourne, St. Charles, Thomas and UA were members of the Southwest Ohio High School Hockey League, which also included teams from the Cincinnati and Dayton areas. Dublin Coffman and Dublin Scioto joined the SWOHSHL for the 2002-03 season, while Gahanna played an independent schedule that season.

With the addition of Coffman, Scioto and Gahanna, forming a central Ohio league made sense.

"(The SWOHSHL) had four teams in Dayton (Beavercreek, Centerville, Oxford Talawanda and Troy) and two from Cincinnati (Moeller and Sycamore) and our (six) teams, so it didn't make sense for us to drive all the way to Dayton (and Cincinnati) to play when we had seven teams here," Kirstein said. "Later on, a couple of the SWOHSHL teams -- Cincinnati Moeller and Springboro -- submitted applications and we were happy to have them join us. They liked the competitive hockey that we were playing."

Dublin Jerome joined the CHC in 2004, followed by DeSales (2006), Olentangy Liberty (2007), Olentangy and Olentangy Orange (2008), Watterson and Moeller (2009), New Albany (2015), Springboro (2016) and Academy (2017).

The CHC and SWOHSHL teams compete in the Columbus district tournament, with the district champion advancing to the state tournament at Nationwide Arena. CHC teams have won the past eight district titles, 10 of the past 12 and 13 overall, but have yet to win a state semifinal.

Coffman came close to reaching the state final in 2016, losing to Hunting Valley University School 3-2 in overtime in a semifinal.

Last season, Liberty lost to Toledo St. Francis 8-2 in a state semifinal.

"We're going to break through sometime, and we keep getting closer," Kirstein said. "We used to only have one line on our teams, but now we have three or more who play hard on all shifts. That makes a big difference."

Another difference is ice availability. While many of the Toledo- and Cleveland-area teams have access to their own ice or a community facility, central Ohio teams must share venues.

"It would be great if everyone could have practice at 3:30 p.m. during the week and play games at 7 p.m. on weekends, but that's not possible," Kirstein said. "If you go to Mentor or Rocky River, they have their own municipal ice facilities.

"If a baseball coach wants to practice, he has a field behind the school, but we're more aligned with golf or bowling or swimming, for most schools. Like us, those programs have to go off campus to work out or compete."

The CHC teams currently have five venues at which to play and practice: OhioHealth Ice Haus, Chiller Dublin, Chiller Easton, Chiller North and sometimes the Worthington-based Chiller Ice Works.

However, on Dec. 7, The Columbus Dispatch reported that a new rink is in the works near I-270 and Sawmill Road.

Chris Khan, an assistant commissioner for the CHC who is in charge of scheduling, said it's difficult to find ice time with the numerous youth, club and adult league teams in central Ohio.

"Traditionally, we have played games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but now we have more scheduled during the week," Khan said. "We had one (j.v.) game Monday (Dec. 18) and two more (j.v.) games on Wednesday (Dec. 20) and another Thursday (Dec. 21).

"It isn't getting any easier because we keep growing. I heard about a new rink up north (near Sawmill and I-270), but nothing is concrete. The numbers are still good and we have to be creative. It's not easy (scheduling), but I would rather have the league growing than the other way around."

Another element that has changed since the formation of the CHC is officiating. Gary Wilkins, an assistant commissioner for the CHC who oversees the officials and has been with the league from the beginning, said much has changed from the early days.

"We had about six guys officiating that first year and now we have 48 high school level officials in the Columbus area," said Wilkins, the OHSAA's director of officiating development for hockey. "We have a lot more every year, but we have a lot of games. I could use another 20, but it takes time to get to that level.

"We probably have about 180 (total officials) around the area, but not all of them can do the higher level and high school games. They do the youth league and adult league games until they can work up to those levels."

Wilkins said the level of play in the CHC also has improved.

"The speed of the game is so much faster," he said. "The kids have gotten a lot better and there are a lot more kids."

shennen@thisweeknews.com

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