Plain and simple: You can't have a true conversation about New Hampshire's rich history of hockey unless the discussion includes Berlin High.
The small-school Mountaineers, representing a tight-knit town at the base of the White Mountains, have long competed at the highest level of NHIAA hockey.
“Our community is a hockey community. They love us and support us,” said second-year Berlin coach Mike Poulin, the face of a program that has made 27 championship appearances since 1947 and nine times finished No. 1.
But this season, there was buzz about Berlin for a different reason: the program was making its final go-round in Division I.
The Mountaineers next season will skate in Division III. Poulin cited the program's consistent decline in participation as the reason for such a precipitous drop. Tough economic times in a town long known for its lumber and paper mills hasn't helped.
Berlin's 2011-12 team featured just 20 skaters, including a mere four seniors. Ten skaters played almost every minute of the varsity team's 18 regular-season games.
“It's a numbers thing,” said Poulin, a 1993 Berlin graduate. “Our youth hockey, we have to continue to build. We're only pulling (athletes) from the Berlin area. It's not like we have a co-op school.
“We have a school of (517) students,” he added. “We're pulling kids out of the hallway to play JV, or kids cut from basketball to play JV. It's difficult to turn around and put them in a Division I game.”
Which makes this story, though sobering, remarkable, too.
Poulin's team – led by co-captains Ethan Dorval and Jeremy Rivard – very nearly qualified for the Division I tournament. Berlin's bid to punch the 10th-and-final tourney ticket came down to the regular-season finale Feb. 25 at Salem.
Know this: Berlin won only three of its first 10 contests. Yet it entered Salem's Icenter with a 7-10-0 record.
The Mountaineers extended their late-season win streak to four games Feb. 22. In their final Division I home game at Notre Dame Arena – Senior Night for the co-captains, goaltender Steve Martin and forward Curtis Riendeau – they celebrated a 5-4 decision against playoff-bound Londonderry High.
“Those kids worked super hard in that game. They were down, 2-0, and they battled. They struggled through their year, but they were right in it until the end,” said Londonderry coach Peter Bedford, whose Lancers secured the No. 8 seed, won their first-round game and advanced to the quarterfinals. “That's an attribute everybody should recognize.”
Tournament qualification required Berlin beat Salem for the second time in seven days. The Mountaineers won a 7-6 affair Feb. 18 against the Blue Devils.
Berlin's bubble, however, burst with a 6-0 setback.
Should the six juniors and seven sophomores on this year's roster return next winter, the Mountaineers figure to be very competitive in Division III.
Poulin said he hopes to someday see the Mountaineers again skating in Division I.
He isn't alone.
“I wish them nothing but the best,” Bedford said.
TIMBERLANE TRIUMPHS – AGAIN
Twenty-six-year coach Barry Chooljian said he spent this season guiding his youngest team in some time. Youth, though, didn't hurt the state's premier wrestling program a lick.
Timberlane Regional locked up its ninth straight Meet of Champions crown Feb. 25 at Londonderry. The Plaistow program celebrated its 18th state championship, and 17th title in the past 20 years.
That's a run that dates to 1993.
Ten Owls were place-winners, and nine of them advanced to the championship match in their respective weight classes.
Those efforts fueled the team's 280-point performance. Second-place Manchester Central High earned 134 points.
Four Owls celebrated individual championships. Juniors Adam Corey (120 pounds), Josh Burnham (132) and Harry Denoncourt (182) survived their brackets.
But senior Zach Bridson, a Division I scholarship recruit for Tennessee-Chattanooga, was the big winner. He captured the crown at 113 pounds. The three-time MoC king was also named the tournament's Outstanding Wrestler.
“Coming out of the Division I championships (Feb. 18), we did really well, but we're so young the question was if we could repeat (the effort),” Chooljian told the New Hampshire Sunday News. “Then we took nine out of 10 matches in the semis and we knew we had it.
“That's hard enough to do in a local tournament,” he added, “let alone the state one.”
So, only one question remains. Can the Owls win their 10th New England championship, and fifth in a row?
They'll have their chance March 2 and 3 at the Providence (R.I.) Career and Technical Center.
SHRINE ROSTER RELEASED
New Hampshire's roster for the 59th annual Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl was released Feb. 21. The Granite State seeks to extend its series-record win streak against Vermont to 12 games when the teams meet Aug. 4 at Dartmouth College.
All-Stars from the 603 area code include:
Bedford: Jordan Garron, LB; Nate Harrington, DT
Bishop Guertin: Nate Chartrand, SE
Dover: Eric Miller, DT
Epping-Newmarket: Dustin Jarosz, CB
Exeter: Adam Morin, OG; Brad Tiernan, OT
Franklin: Brian Pickowicz, DE
Hanover: Dan Gorman, SE
Hollis/Brookline: Colin Pellerin, S
Inter-Lakes: Conor Donovan, LB
Laconia: Raige Hollis, OG
Lebanon: Alexander Morrill, OG
Manchester Central: Junior Brown, SE; Jared Chandler, Slot
Manchester Memorial: Cody Dalton, DB
Merrimack: Jackson King, Slot; Sam Prive, OT
Milford: Jordan Gaudette, OG
Nashua South: Jon Bieren, OC
Pinkerton: Kevin Davies, TB; Emmitt Smith, Slot
Plymouth: Nick Reisert, DE
Salem: Jerickson Fedrick, TB
Sanborn: Dylan Spence, DB
Souhegan: Tim Beliveau, SE; Chris Chininis, Slot; Rob McCormick, QB
Spaulding: Dillon Couture, DE
Stevens: Cam Blewitt, CB
St. Thomas Aquinas: Tom Cifrino, LB
Timberlane: Evan Bidgood, QB
Trinity: Josh Hughes, LB; Mike Leonard, LB
Winnacunnet: Matt Myers, DT
Marc Thaler is a reporter for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He co-hosts the “N.H. High School Sports Show” on Manchester's WGIR-AM 610 and the Seacoast's 96.7 FM every Saturday from 7-9 a.m. Read his “New Hampshire GameDay” blog and follow him on Twitter: @marc_thaler.