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Bishop Union making LAKHSHL program work in mountains

 

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Many people in Southern California know the town of Bishop as a stop-off on the route to skiing, snowboarding and summer alpine adventures at popular Mammoth Mountain along California’s Eastern Sierra.

But the tiny town with a population (3,760) smaller than its elevation (4,150 feet) also has a hockey program that is thriving despite the many challenges it faces.

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The Bishop Union junior varsity team is an outlier in the L.A. Kings High School Hockey League (LAKHSHL) in more ways than one. The most obvious difference between the Broncos and other teams in the league is geography – they are based more than 200 miles from their nearest neighbor in the league and their “home” rink in Valencia in the north Los Angeles suburbs.

The Broncos also don’t have a rink in which to hold practices, and when they are fortunate enough to get some practice time in, it’s on an outdoor sheet of ice 40 minutes away in Mammoth or at a rink three hours away in Lake Tahoe.

Still, the Broncos persist, and because the coaches and players all have such a passion for the game, they find a way to make it work.

Last year, they advanced to the junior varsity championship game in the LAKHSHL, and despite graduating many of their top players from that squad, they sat comfortably at 4-4 as the 2019 calendar flipped to December.

“The thing that makes it possible is just the passion of the kids that play,” Bishop head coach Cronus Dillard said. “These kids love hockey, and they want to play and have fun. The travel can be a pretty big burden, but it’s worth it for these kids, their families and our coaching staff to put in the time and effort to make it happen.”

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Because of the area’s tiny population and the high school’s small enrollment (approximately 600 students) compared to other areas where teams in the league are based, there aren’t enough hockey players to ice teams at both the varsity and JV levels, but Dillard is confident the Broncos will be able to have one or the other every year. His JV team this year features just two seniors, with the rest of the roster comprised of underclassmen. He said the presence of a strong and well-established roller hockey program in town has built the foundation for the Broncos to success on the ice.

Each weekend during the season, the team travels to the L.A. area on Friday afternoons for a game that night, then stays over and plays another game Saturday before making the return trek north to Bishop. They are lucky to get in 12 practices a year.

“We’re either dedicated or a little crazy,” Dillard said with a laugh.

There has been ongoing discussion about an indoor rink to be built in Mammoth, but no clear picture of when it would be built or how likely it is to be given the green light. It would be a huge boost for the Broncos’ program in the long term.

Assistant coach and manager Eric Tillemans has been with the Broncos program for two seasons, and said the challenges they face make them appreciate the sport even more.

“We have some pretty amazing families who are really dedicated and willing to get the kids to and from practices and games,” Tillemans said. “Hockey families in general are really dedicated. No matter where you are, you’re making sacrifices for your kids to play hockey, whether it’s the cost, the travel or playing games and tournaments around the holidays every year.

“We do the same thing here, but it’s maybe a little more to ask of the players, coaches and families.”

— Greg Ball

(Dec. 31, 2019)