Reversing its stance from a year ago, the Maine Principals’ Association approved a waiver Tuesday morning by an 11-1 vote to allow Portland High and Deering High to form a co-op boys’ ice hockey team for the next two years.

Deering did not have a boys’ ice hockey team last year after the MPA denied its request for a co-op waiver with Portland, a request filed by Deering because it didn’t have enough players to form its own team.

“I think the circumstances are different,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the MPA. “The major change from a year ago is that one of the teams (Deering) did not have a program.”

Officials from both Portland public high schools spoke to the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee, hoping to persuade it to allow the waiver.

“When they took all the factors into consideration,” said Mel Craig, the athletic director at Deering, “they voted in our favor.”

Craig said only two male students at Deering have indicated an interest in playing hockey. “Now that the word is officially out, hopefully we’ll generate more interest,” she said.

Mike Connolly, Portland’s new athletic director, said the numbers don’t really matter.

“The big picture is that we know there were kids in the Portland school system who weren’t going to have the opportunity to play hockey,” he said. “Even if it is only two, that’s two who would not have had the opportunity otherwise.”

Ben Barnes, a junior at Deering, is one of those two. He played last year for the Gray-New Gloucester/Poland co-op junior varsity team.

“It was an hour drive every day, I couldn’t play varsity, it was pretty tough,” said Barnes, who started playing when he was 3. “This is my only sport. And this year I get to play hockey. That’s all that matters.”

It was actually the third year in a row that the Portland public schools applied for a co-op waiver. The previous two were denied, mainly on the merit of the MPA’s maximum enrollment rule, which states that the co-op program could not have a combined enrollment greater than the largest high school in the state.

According to the latest enrollment numbers provided by the MPA, Deering (942 students), Portland (913) and Casco Bay High (267) have a combined enrollment of 2,122. Thornton Academy in Saco has highest enrollment at 1,384 students.

Durost said two other waivers needed to be granted before the co-op team became official.

“Normally one of the schools must not have had a team for two years,” said Durost. “It’s only been one year that Deering didn’t have a team. That required a waiver as well.”

The MPA also waived a requirement that a co-op team’s uniform reflect a combined team.

After last year’s denial, three boys sued the MPA claiming they were discriminated against based on sex after the MPA allowed a co-op team for the Portland and Deering girls. But a Cumberland County Superior Court justice ruled in the MPA’s favor. Craig felt that lawsuit may have had an effect this year.

“I think it opened a dialogue for this committee to look at the big picture and make a decision based on what was best for the kids,” she said.

Durost stressed that the schools’ argument this year was aided by Deering’s lack of a team in the 2011-12 school year.

“We heard the same arguments two years ago, and Deering still had a team,” he said. “We heard the same arguments last year and Deering didn’t have a team.”

Portland officials lauded the decision for not only allowing a co-op team, but giving students more academic choice.

“If you were a hockey player, you were almost forced to choose Portland,” said Connolly. “Now they have that choice like every other student.”

Norm Gagne, the veteran coach at Scarborough, seemed surprised by the decision, but pleased with it as well.

“It’s going to help them, it’s going to make them competitive,” he said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH