The high school girls hockey state championship will take center stage Saturday night at Bennett Rink in West Haven, and the hope is this year’s rendition comes with no strings attached. No controversy, no questions left unanswered, just one worthy winner.

That’s right, one worthy winner.

Last year’s final, unfortunately, didn’t have one at all, which had players, parents and coaches crying foul. Simsbury and East Catholic/Glastonbury/South Windsor played to a 2-2 tie and, after two 15-minute overtimes, were named co-champions. The FCIAC boys final followed, as did the firestorm on Twitter, with both girls teams begging for answers as to why they weren’t able to play until someone — anyone — scored.

New Canaan coach Rich Bulan, who was overseeing the final for the FCIAC at Stamford’s Terry Conners Rink, claimed it was a simple misunderstanding and not a matter of the boys getting preferential treatment over the girls. Many others, including Bruins play-by-play voice Jack Edwards, argued otherwise.

Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, SCC commissioner Al Carbone felt the often-overlooked sport benefitted from an unexpected appearance in the spotlight.

“That was unfair, but it was a miscommunication and it happened,” he said. “The two teams were state champions, and that’s a positive. It brought more attention to girls ice hockey. … Sometimes publicity comes in the unlikeliest places.”

With only 20 teams statewide, girls hockey traditionally has been governed by the FCIAC and SCC on a rotating basis, rather than the CIAC. The hiccup at last year’s final, however, led to a change in power structure.

Formed was a new-and-improved board of directors made up of three coaches (Bulan, Darien’s Jamie Tropsa and East Catholic’s Frank Usseglio) and four athletic directors (West Haven’s Jon Capone, Simsbury’s Dane Street, Darien’s Chris Manfredonia and North Haven’s Todd Petronio), along with Carbone. The group met periodically throughout the year and designed a new playoff format based on power points and strength of schedule.

“Very similar to football, it looks exactly like that,” Capone said. “There will be a winner this year. We’ll play it out.”

Added Bulan: “The FCIAC became a league (for girls hockey) in 2004, and we had our very first state tournament in 2006. Even though we’re not CIAC-regulated, we pretty much follow every rule that the CIAC has. … It’s actually, despite not being CIAC, running pretty good.”

Whereas last year’s final preceded the boys game, there won’t be any interruptions this time around. Top-ranked Darien will face defending co-champion East Catholic/Glastonbury/South Windsor, the No. 2 seed, Saturday at Bennett Rink at 7 p.m.

With numbers stagnant or, at some schools, on the decline, there’s hope that the sport will rise in popularity. While Darien and New Canaan have solidified themselves as perennial powers built on rock-solid feeder programs and strong participation, others have resorted to co-ops to stay afloat. Take Trumbull/St. Joseph, for example, which had just 11 — yes, 11 — players last year.

“With a very short team, if one person’s sick, it’s hard to field a practice,” said Trumbull/St. Joseph coach Paula Dady, who, fortunately, saw her roster increase to 19 this winter. “With snow and sick time, I had to move seven games last year. It was challenging in terms of attendance. Eleven skaters, you have two people out and you barely have two lines.”

With no feeder program in town, Dady said many of her players don’t even live in Trumbull. Instead, a majority come through the school’s agriscience program. She estimated that nearly half of the players on this year’s roster were beginners.

“The players that do (come from surrounding towns) are the ones who have been playing their entire life,” she said.

Even one of the more successful programs year in and year out, Ridgefield, which reached the state quarterfinals this year, saw numbers decline to 17 this season. Athletic director Carl Charles said when the program started around the turn of the century, they had between 20 and 25 players.

Ridgefield picked up a few players from Immaculate a couple years ago, but stopped once the FCIAC ruled teams that co-opped outside the conference ineligible for the postseason. Charles also gauged Danbury’s interest in joining forces at one point, but nothing ever materialized.

“It’s gotten down to a level that merits a lot of watching,” Charles said. “It’s getting to the level of ‘Hey, are we going to be able to put a team on the ice this year?’ We’ve had very good success. For low numbers, we do a great job.

“We’re losing some kids to outside programs — travel teams of a different nature.”

While athletes in many other sports are prohibited from participating with travel teams in season, girls hockey players are afforded more opportunities because their sport is not controlled by the CIAC. The CIAC will only consider controlling girls hockey when, first and foremost, 20 percent of the member schools compete in the sport in the same season at the varsity level.

There are various opinions as to whether that will happen. Sports like lacrosse and boys volleyball made the climb later on, but hockey’s unique in that it’s so expensive to play.

“A while back, same thing with girls lacrosse. They started and had an incentive to gain more teams,” said Joe Tonelli, a CIAC executive staff member. “It worked out extremely well. … Finance is probably the number one factor because rinks are not like gymnasiums. Every school doesn’t have one.”

Added Capone: “I don’t see the growth. It’s at a snail’s crawl. We’re picking up one, maybe two teams a year. Next year, the only team that might come in is Masuk. I don’t see it in the immediate future.”

Of course, there’s a question of whether being under the wide eyes of the CIAC would make life all that different.

“I still kind of feel like we’re CIAC anyways,” Greenwich coach Alex Lerchen said. “There’s a championship at stake, there’s a county championship at stake.”

Sometimes, all anyone can ask for is a worthy champion.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour