Hockey continues to grow

Posted Dec. 09, 2008, at 9:02 p.m.

In 1976, there were six high school boys hockey teams in the state of Maine.

It was odd that a state with such severe winters wouldn’t be more of a hockey hotbed.

The Bangor area squandered an opportunity to establish hockey when the decision was made to build the Bangor Auditorium without a regulation-size hockey rink in it. There was an ice sheet, but it was 60 feet too short to meet the minimum requirements.

A hockey rink has to be at least 185 feet long by 85 feet wide.

The decision saved the city $400,000 and that was a lot of money in 1955.

But the evolution of the University of Maine’s hockey program in Orono and the Maine Mariners’ AHL franchise (owned by a first-class Philadelphia Flyers organization at the time) jumpstarted hockey across the state. They both began in the 1977-78 season and both had a surprising amount of early success. In fact, the Mariners won the Calder Cup in their first year.

The Mariners are now the Portland Pirates, the top affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres.

The University of Maine has won two NCAA championships.

There are now 46 high school boys teams in the state and, for the first time ever, there is schoolgirl ice hockey with an eye-opening 18 teams making their debuts this season.

In 2003, the state’s most rabid hockey town, Lewiston, introduced a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise.

That provides central Maine with a quality source of entertainment like the Portland Pirates and Maine Black Bears have done in their areas.

The fascinating aspect of hockey’s growth is that it is an expensive sport.

And Maine is a poor, overtaxed state.

There certainly have been some casualties. Stearns High of Millinocket and Foxcroft Academy had to drop their teams because their youth programs dried up.

Hockey can cost parents anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per year for one child to play when you consider the cost of equipment, ice time and travel.

However, there are stores like Gunn’s in Brewer that allow you to trade in skates when youngsters outgrow them, and there are a lot of fundraising projects that can help reduce the cost.

In several cases, ice hockey boosters clubs have supplied at least the startup financing that enabled high schools to add hockey to the curriculum.

Hockey is the consummate blue-collar sport and Maine is the consummate blue-collar state.

In other sports, size and talent can trump a strong work ethic.

In hockey, if you are willing to work tirelessly on your skating and you aren’t afraid to absorb a check, you can transform yourself into a useful player.

A strong work ethic and grit can offset talent and size.

Maine Principals Association executive director Dick Durost said he was pleased by the number of girls teams.

“We thought we’d have 10-12 teams sanction it, but when we officially adopted the sport, a lot of communities stepped forward. They wanted their girls to have that opportunity,”said Durost. “It’s difficult with all the budget cuts and potential cuts, but it says something about the communities and the schools that they want to give their girls as much opportunity as they could.”

However, he also warned that there could be a “scarcity of ice time” that will have to be addressed by the 16 schools with both boys and girls teams.

There are no girls teams north of Winslow. Hopefully, it will spread to the Bangor area.

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