When Anthony Scolieri was playing high school hockey in the area a decade ago, the difference in quality of play between PIHL enrollment classifications was easy to see.
Scolieri says single, double, triple ... they're closer to merely being just numbers describing the amount of "A's."
At least Scolieri hopes so. As the new coach of Hampton, he's leading the only program across the PIHL that is playing up in a new classification as compared to last season.
"To be honest with you, we've played in that [preseason] St. Margaret's tournament every year, and we play against Double-A and Triple-A teams," Scolieri said. "And you know, even watching [Class A power] Mars play in that tournament the last two years, they handled Double-A and Triple-A teams well and beat the majority of them.
"The class lines are a lot more blurred now than they were when I played. I think that on any given night, a top-tier team from any division can hang with a top-tier team in any other classification."
Hampton went 12-4-2 during the regular season last year, advancing to the Penguins Cup Class A semifinal under coach Dan Serakowski, who resigned. The other two teams in the Talbots' section won a combined four games.
This season, the task of winning a section becomes markedly tougher. Hampton was inserted in Section 4-AA with Plum and Pine-Richland, which has recently been a Class AAA team and won a Penguins Cup in Class AA a few years ago.
The PIHL in 2012-13 will feature 12 teams in Class A, 14 in Class AA and 15 in Class AAA. Bishop Canevin (Class A to Class AA) and Peters Township (Class AA to Class AAA) are voluntarily playing up in class; otherwise, the format invokes splitting the number of schools into thirds based on registered PIAA enrollment.
There are 22 teams in the developmental Open Class, which is in its final season of existence.
Open Class teams are permitted to form cooperative agreements with nearby schools to complete a competitive-sized roster.
Frazier's new hockey program includes a varsity team that will play in the Open Class. After a hiatus without a varsity team, Altoona rejoins the classification. Deer Lakes similarly sat out varsity-level competition last year but is back in Class A this winter.
Fox Chapel is a surprising omission from the varsity alignment; just two seasons ago, the Foxes had the best regular-season record in Class AAA. Knoch (previously in Class A) and former Open Class team Ligonier Valley are other programs that have dropped their varsity teams.
The PIHL season is scheduled to begin Nov. 1, with the regular season ending in late February. Tentatively, Open Class playoffs will begin Feb. 24 with the Chiefs Cup and Nailers Cup finals four days later and the overall Open Cup championship three days after that.
The Penguins Cup playoffs are tentatively scheduled to begin March 4, with the semifinals March 11-13 and the championship games March 16 at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins are scheduled to play host to the Buffalo Sabres at 1 p.m. that afternoon.
The PIHL also is hoping to stage its semifinals on the Penguins' home ice, but a Penguins home game March 12 is complicating that schedule.
The Pennsylvania Cup state championship games alternate which side of the state they are played, and this season they will be played March 23 in the Philadelphia area.
Other highlights of the PIHL season schedule include the annual Outdoor Charity Series, which is in its sixth season. This year, games will be played Jan. 11 and 18 at North Park and South Park to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, breast cancer research, brain cancer research and the PIHL Paul Scuillo II Memorial Scholarship.
The PIHL also again plans on playing regular-season varsity games at the "Penguins Pond" temporary outdoor rink the NHL team sets up in the winter. Last season, the rink was on the South Side.
The PIHL's all-star Sunday was moved from January -- when it often conflicted with Steelers AFC championship game appearances -- to the week after the Super Bowl. It also moved from the Rostraver Ice Garden to the Robert Morris Island Sports Center.
This season, the PIHL is represented by 68 schools (including four in West Virginia) and 77 others have players who compete in high school and junior high-level hockey due to cooperative agreements.
"We're committed to growing the sport in the area any way we can," PIHL commissioner Ed Sam said.