FARMINGTON HILLS — Cooperation and commitment are desirable qualities for any high school athlete. But they are also the biggest reasons why one Catholic school-based hockey team continues to exist.
Even though 19 players sport black-and-yellow jerseys that say "Bishop Foley United," the Madison Heights-based team’s roster is made up of students from a whopping six high schools stretching across Oakland and Macomb counties.
The ability to combine multiple schools to field a team — known as a “co-op” agreement — has been permitted, and sometimes encouraged, by the Michigan High School Athletic Association since the early 1990s. Just about every MHSAA-sponsored sport includes co-op teams, although they tend to be more prevalent in specialized sports such as hockey, gymnastics, skiing and lacrosse.
Most often, a co-op might include two neighboring schools, or high schools that reside in the same district. But Bishop Foley United is something different, on a much larger scale. Interestingly enough, only two of the 19 players suiting up this year attend Bishop Foley — freshmen Jeremy Slotnick and Zach Niphoratos.
What makes the team truly unique is that the roster also includes eight players from Macomb Lutheran North, four from Clarkston Everest Collegiate, two from Royal Oak Shrine, one from Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes, and for the first time, two from a public high school — Madison Heights Lamphere. In past seasons, Marine City Cardinal Mooney, Chesterfield Austin Catholic, Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest and Sterling Heights Parkway Christian have been part of the mix.
“I will give credit to Bishop Foley; they seem to be a hotbed for co-op teams,” said head coach John Cynowa, who graduated from the school in 2018 and played for the Ventures for three seasons. “A lot of their sports are co-op, not just hockey — wrestling, lacrosse, bowling, swimming — lots of co-ops. From what I understand, schools are asking to co-op with them. I’ve got to give them credit for the outreach of our athletic directors, our game manager and my team manager.”
As a result, the dedicated hockey players show up from nearly anywhere, even if they live 45 minutes to an hour away.
“We are reaching out to any school that we know doesn’t have a team, that we may want to join us,” Cynowa said. “I’ve also got people coming up to me, saying, ‘I’ve got a family friend that plays at this school, they may want to play.’ So really it’s just more-or-less the struggle to keep the team and the program going, and bringing in whatever schools we have to in order to field a team.”
At one time, Foley, Shrine and Lamphere had their own squads. But players (and even rinks) come and go, and those unique teams dwindled away. Plus, there are other options for playing the game such as house leagues and travel teams.
But Bishop Foley United students can’t be more pleased with the opportunity to play high school hockey.
“As long as I get to play and have fun, it’s great,” said Dylan Astrauckas, a Lutheran North senior. “You wouldn’t believe it, but all these kids work together so well. It’s amazing to see kids from different schools who don’t even know each other, and then two or three weeks into practice, they all know each other and depend on each other.”
Another Lutheran North senior, Grant Stocker, is part of the team for the first time this winter.
“I’ve played travel (hockey) my whole life, and the last year, my team just kind of blew up, so this was kind of like my last resort, but it’s just fun playing with different groups of people who come from different areas, and being able to bond together,” he said. “Seeing the different personalities from different schools is really fun.”
Logistically, it can get complicated. Unlike a single-school team, it’s a lot harder to schedule a simple bus trip or even hold a team meeting. Schedules, itineraries and messages have to be sent to several places at once.
“It’s sometimes kind of hard. I have to have my parents take me because I can’t drive yet,” Our Lady of the Lakes sophomore Derek Townsend said. “Sometimes they have to get home from work early and take time off, or work in the car. It’s a little tough, but I’m good at managing it.”
On top of that, Townsend is the only player on the team from his school.
“That’s pretty cool, honestly,” he said. “It would be nice to have a couple more people from my school in order to connect a little bit, but at the same time I do like being able to meet the new guys and have more friends than I do normally.”
The team plays its home games at Lindell Ice Arena in Royal Oak, but “home” is a figure of speech, Cynowa said.
“You really don’t get home-ice advantage when your players are driving in from 45 minutes away to get to the game,” he said. “We actually play (home) games against teams that drive a whole lot less in order to get to our home games. Some games don’t even feel like home games at home.”
The team sports a 5-10-0 record so far, but all of its wins have come over large-school programs, namely New Boston Huron, Southgate Anderson, Troy, Grand Blanc and Port Huron. On Jan. 24, Bishop Foley fell to Farmington, 7-4, with Stocker netting a hat trick.
“We dropped a couple (games) that we wish we could have had, but this team is night-and-day from the team we had last year,” Cynowa said. “One thing I’ll say about the co-op: in my nine years between playing and coaching, we’ve had maybe only one year where we didn’t completely jell like one team. Most years you go in there, and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think we were only one school.”
Blake Holtkamp, a senior from Lamphere in his first year with the co-op arrangement, agrees wholeheartedly.
“I would say high school hockey is a different type of family. You don’t get this with travel hockey,” he said. “We’ve all got the same blood; we’re all boys. All I’m here to do is play hockey.”