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In the spring of 1999, Potomac, Md., resident Herb Helman sat in the stands of the Bowie Ice Arena, watching his older son, Todd, try out for the Washington Little Capitals, at that time the only Tier 1 travel hockey club in the D.C. area. Todd, then 12, had played with the Little Capitals’ Pee Wee team the year before, and though he was still waiting for his growth spurt, he skated circles around the bigger boys. Despite his ability, Todd was cut. According to Helman, none of the boys who eventually made the team were less than 6 feet tall.

“I went ballistic,” recalls the elder Helman. “I went up to the coach and said, ‘Are you fucking crazy? You just cut one of the most skilled players in the area.’ All that coach was interested in was size.”

Todd’s story isn’t unique to the high-stakes and often viciously political world of competitive youth sports. In fact, it is so common that Washington-area hockey parents recently took matters into their own hands. Tired of seeing their children fail to make Little Capitals’ teams, for more than 20 years the only Tier 1 club in town, parents from the Reston Raiders Hockey Club (RRHC) and the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association (MYHA) have simply formed their own Tier 1 clubs. The RRHC began Tier 1 competition in 2001, and the MYHA followed suit in 2003.

Predictably, the Little Capitals aren’t happy about the new competition for players, and they don’t mince words when expressing their disappointment. On its Web site, as part of the frequently-asked questions for prospective players, the team states: “Recently some new programs have been established who’s objective sometimes appear to be simply to keep their best players from moving on to the Washington Little Capitals.”

Some Little Capitals parents see the multiplication of Tier 1 programs, the most elite level of travel hockey, as the youth-sports equivalent of grade inflation, obscuring the true talents in the area. “Tier 1 is like saying your kid is gifted and talented,” says Alan Weiner, father of two Little Capitals players. “But if everyone’s gifted and talented, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. That’s kind of what’s happening here.”

Mike Dahan, a Canadian-born coach who has been with the Little Capitals for five years, can’t make sense of the way things are done here in Washington. “Only a small percentage of kids are elite athletes, but people in this area seem to think we can have a higher percentage,” he says via cell phone from Atlanta, where his 16-and-under team is competing in the Southeastern District Tournament Championships. “People aren’t doing themselves a favor by pushing kids to play at the highest level they can create.”

According to Dahan, the dilution of talent has had an impact on his team’s quality. Six or seven years ago, back in the Little Capitals’ heyday, over 100 players showed up at tryouts. This season, only 23 players tried out for Dahan’s team. He kept 20 of them. Dahan estimates that he only has 65 percent of the area’s top players. “We’re doing OK here at Districts, but two or three players would make a real difference,” he says.

Another consequence of the proliferation of Tier 1 programs is that the Tier 2 teams that traditionally developed players for Tier 1–level play have been kneecapped. The MYHA, which promoted its best Tier 2 teams to Tier 1, hasn’t had the numbers to field these teams for the past two years. In league play this past season, the RRHC’s Tier 1 12-and-under major team won one game, lost 10, and tied one. Its two corresponding Tier 2 teams went a combined 0-36-0 in their leagues, scoring a total of 41 goals while their opponents scored 264 against them. Even so, Reston-area players will have six Tier 1 teams to play on in the 2005-2006 season.

Bobby Poulin, the MYHA’s assistant director of hockey operations, puts a different spin on the stats. “It’s true, this isn’t a very strong Tier 1 club,” Poulin admits. “But the same thing happens when pro sports expand. It just takes time.”

No one’s waiting around for a natural evolution to take place, though. The war between the Tier 1 hockey clubs has advanced to the league level. The Little Capitals belong to the Atlantic Youth Hockey League (AYHL), generally considered to be the top youth league on the East Coast, and compete against teams from everywhere from Philadelphia to Connecticut. But because the AYHL prohibits new members within a 50-mile radius of existing franchises, the MYHA and RRHC teams were shut out of the league. In 2003, the excluded teams founded a league of their own, the Eastern Elite Amateur Hockey League (EEAHL). The following year, they helped establish another, the Southeast Elite Hockey League (SEHL).

Critics of the new Tier 1 clubs don’t think much of these upstarts. Jeff Schlagenhauf was the president of the RRHC when it voted to form the SEHL; he was the only one who voted against doing so. “The scheduling added tremendous expense for not much payback, and it resulted in the stupidity of the Reston and Montgomery teams traveling all the way down to Florida to play each other,” he says.

Playing in a young league also usually means playing against mediocre competition. For Little Capitals parents, the opportunity for their children to compete against the best is worth much more than the so-called prestige of playing in a Tier 1 program. “Every week my kids play quality, meaningful games,” says Weiner. “And I’d rather have them lose 2-1 than win 15-0.”

But Helman says that the Little Capitals have rested too much on laurels they accumulated during the years that they monopolized Tier 1 hockey in the Washington area. “This will be their downfall,” says Helman. “The only thing they have is the league, and if Montgomery ever gets into the AYHL, the Little Caps would simply fold.”

Poulin, for one, can already see the end of the Little Capitals’ reign. “That’s why they’re upset,” he says. “They’re used to the recognition of being the only game in town, but now they actually have to work to go to Districts.”

There have been talks between the Little Capitals and other Tier 1 clubs to combine forces at certain age groups, but the deals fell through each time. No one is holding his breath for reconciliation anytime soon. “People in this area are extra sensitive to title and position,” says Schlagenhauf. “I used to work on Capitol Hill, and [the politics] here are worse than anything I ever had to deal with there. It’s a shame that parents and organizational leadership have become so focused on labels that they’ve neglected working on producing a first-rate product.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Helman’s younger son, Alec, 13, and Zach Weiner, 14, are hanging out at Alec’s house. Alec plays for the MHYA’s Tier 1 14-and-under minor team. Zach plays for the Little Capitals. Zach’s team, which finished seventh in a 15-team league, is one of the competitive ones. Alec’s club finished last in its league, which comprises teams from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Reston. “It was a little embarrassing,” he says.

Even though Alec, who was his team’s leading scorer, doesn’t mind the proliferation of Tier 1 programs (“It gives more kids the chance to play,” he says), all the losing has been tough to take. To him, however, the solution to his club’s dismal record is simple: Next month, he will try out for his buddy Zach’s Little Capitals team. “My dad doesn’t want me playing for the Little Caps, because he says they’re a failing organization,” he explains. “But I’ve always wanted to play at the highest level I can.” CP