When the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association plays its ice hockey championship games at Piney Orchard Ice Arena -- the former practice home of the Washington Capitals -- the noise grows throughout the back-to-back contests. People yell, stomp, cheer and even ring a cowbell or two during the games. In other words, it's rather loud in the building.
Plus, finding a seat can be quite the task. Fans from both schools playing, whether it's the A or B Conference matchup, are often standing to see the rink better and cheer on their teams. That's often what it's like in big games in the MIAA, especially for football, basketball or lacrosse contests.
However, hockey also has its fan base in the MIAA, stronger than most realize. When the Capitals practiced for the 1998 Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings, the rink was practically full. The MIAA A and B Conference finals have crowds much like that.
"There's a strong fan base with the big schools," said Rob Trantin, head coach at Archbishop Spalding, the defending A Conference champion. "I think the sport is growing so much that you're going to see the core will stay strong. There's just more kids playing hockey."
Spalding beat Mount Saint Joseph, 4-1, in last winter's title game, and Mike Marley, the Gaels' head coach, agreed with Trantin.
"I'd say it's growing and it's really competitive," Marley said. "There's really good games at [the different] levels. The kids feel really passionate about the game and the team."
But he also feels that solid core of people who just love hockey is a big reason why some schools keep doing well. Mount Saint Joseph, for example, has won 11 championships overall while Spalding has earned four of the last seven.
"There's definitely a solid base, and it's not going anywhere," he said. "Most of the schools are pretty well-entrenched."
The MIAA was established in 1994 after the old Maryland Scholastic Association disbanded for various reasons. According to the MIAA, hockey became an official sport in 1998 and two years later, there were five teams playing in the A Conference and six competing in the B Conference.
This year, there are two conferences once more. Calvert Hall, Mount Saint Joseph, Spalding and St. Paul's make up the A Conference. The B Conference features Boys' Latin, Archbishop Curley, Gilman, Glenelg Country School, Loyola and Saints Peter & Paul.
There is also a junior varsity division with Calvert Hall, Gilman, Mount Saint Joseph, Spalding and St. Paul's.
The season began Oct. 1 and will run until the championships, which are set for Feb. 14 at Piney Orchard in Odenton, Md. The B Conference title game will be played at 4 p.m., with the A Conference going at 6 p.m.
Mount Saint Joseph was the dominant team in the early years of the MIAA. The Gaels won the first eight hockey championships from 1998-99 to 2006-07, and they truly were a powerhouse.
Calvert Hall won three in a row after that, and Spalding has already won four this decade.
Trantin said Spalding will have almost 60 boys and 50 girls playing hockey this winter, and that the program is only growing stronger. He and Marley agree the Capitals' victory in the Stanley Cup finals in June is something that could help hockey in the MIAA, although the influence of the Caps' championship may not be felt for years when young kids may want to play in high school.
"It won't help us immediately," Trantin said. "But it only helps everything."
Mount Saint Joseph, Spalding and Calvert Hall will stay busy this winter as each team is in a second league, as well -- the Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League. The Gaels and Cavaliers are both fielding a pair of teams that compete in separate divisions.
The MAPHL is loaded with private schools in the Washington, D.C., area like DeMatha, Landon, Gonzaga, Bishop O'Connell and others -- schools that many high school basketball fans are well familiar with. But the interest and following for hockey is strong, as well. There's also the Mid-Atlantic Girls Hockey League, which featured two teams from Spalding plus one from Bryn Mawr and another from St. Timothy's in 2017-18, according to the league website.
Marley said that between the MIAA and MAPHL, Mount Saint Joseph is probably going to play 20 regular-season games, plus a Christmas tournament and playoffs -- an ambitious schedule for a high school team.
How does something that's basically a niche sport -- public schools still haven't made it an official varsity sport -- keep itself going in the world of private schools? Trantin said some of it comes from the work of the schools that actually field teams.
He said those schools help the cause by using social media to post pictures, videos, schedules and anything else that informs people about what's going on with the program.
"[They] help get the word out," Trantin said.
Marley certainly knows the word has gotten out on the days of the championship games. The crowds, the noise and trying to find a space in the parking lot -- a tough task in that situation -- make it seem like a pro team is there.
A lot of people who love hockey follow these high school programs that have enjoyed a lot of success during the past 25 years. Maybe all of that combined is why MIAA hockey continues to keep rolling and why the crowds and noise are something to notice when the finals roll around.
"We don't get [quite] as much support throughout the season as we do [when reaching] that game," Marley said. "I think that just adds to the excitement, and all the kids are super pumped up to play."