During the high school season, Zeb Tuell and Kyle Alexander were archrivals.
Tuell was a freshman at Bangor High School while Alexander played for Brewer.
They have also been teammates for the Maine Freeze Tier I junior hockey program and helped the Freeze win the state bantam (ages 13-14) championship recently and qualify for the national tournament April 6-11 in Wayne, N.J.
“It’s weird. There’s a rivalry because of Bangor-Brewer, but we’re also linemates with the Freeze. We put [the rivalry] aside. There’s no rivalry between us. We’re good friends. There’s a mutual respect,” said Tuell.
“We’ve played together with the Freeze for three years now,” pointed out Alexander.
They are two of eight high school players who play for the Freeze’s bantam team and most of them balance their Freeze schedule with their high school careers whether it be varsity, JV or both.
“High school hockey comes first,” explained Denis Collins, who coaches the team along with Dennis Tracy and Richard Brown.
Collins is the JV coach at Bangor High School.
“It’s hard to balance them. You have to be focused,” said Tuell.
“It is tough, but I try to make all the [Freeze] practices and games I can. My parents help out a lot. They drive me and most of the games are in southern Maine,” said Alexander.
The Freeze start their regular-season schedule in late October, before the high school hockey season begins. They have weekend tournaments throughout the winter culminating in the state tournament.
In addition to playing across the state, they also play in tournaments in New England and Atlantic Canada.
The team uses all three local rinks: Bangor’s Sawyer Arena, Brewer’s Penobscot Ice Arena and the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena in Orono.
The Freeze have played 49 games so far, going 26-17-6.
The bantams aren’t the only program affiliated with the Freeze as there are also squirt (10-11) and peewee (11-12) teams.
Despite the balancing act, Tuell and Alexander have absolutely no regrets.
“I definitely enjoy it. I never get tired of it. I love hockey,” said Tuell.
Alexander said they aren’t going to be able to play for two teams again and they want to cherish the opportunity.
“This is my last year of bantams and I want to enjoy it as much as I can,” said Alexander. “And the extra ice time is really helpful.”
They also said the level of competition is top-notch and it significantly helps their development.
“You get to play against the best kids in the state in your age group,” said Alexander. “It’s great competition. We’ve also taken a lot of trips out of state, so you see the competition level in other states.”
“It’s the best opportunity in the area to play a high level of hockey,” said Tuell. “We play very good competition [on a regular basis]. I think there’s more skill than you see at the high school level.”
In addition to Tuell and Alexander, the other high school-aged players are Brewer’s Jacob Caron and Andrew Collins, Orono’s Andrew Holt, Conor McKaig and Michael Brown, and Charleston’s Jacob Fletcher, who attends Foxcroft Academy.
Foxcroft Academy dropped hockey after the 2006-2007 season.
The other players are eighth graders with the exception of seventh-grade forward Jordan Tracy of Bangor.
The eighth graders are Bangor’s Justin Courtney, Cameron Dickson, Karl Farley, Galen Perry and Richard Powell; Hampden’s Luther Vomeigen and Robert Stowe; Dedham’s Alexander Wortman and Holden’s Ethan Hanley.
Brown and Powell are the goalies; Caron, Courtney, Dickson, Farley, McKaig, Perry and Stowe man the blue line and the rest are forwards.
The team was the fourth seed entering the state tournament but went 5-0 including a 1-0 overtime win over one of the two Casco Bay entries in the title game.
McKaig scored the winner off a Fletcher feed and Brown was superb between the pipes throughout the tournament.
Tuell said Brown was “fantastic” while Alexander used the word “phenomenal.”
There were other factors, as well.
“We weren’t the most skilled team there, but we listened to the coaches and worked hard,” said Tuell.
“We had a very young team, but a lot of the young guys stepped up,” said Alexander. “Our first line didn’t score in the semifinals or the final, but a lot of the grinders contributed. It was definitely a team effort. And we have good team chemistry.”
“The guys played with lots of heart and grit and they’re unselfish. They pass the puck very well. Now they just need to shoot more,” said Collins, who added they were very coachable.
“I’m very proud of this team. I didn’t expect them to come this far. But any time you asked something of them, they’d do it,” added Collins.
The coaches and players have been fundraising for the trip to New Jersey, where they will be in the B pool with teams from states with similar registration figures.
Maine will be in a group with North Dakota, Washington and Indiana.
In addition to having a couple more practices before the trip, the team will continue to do fundraising to help defray the costs of the trip.
“It’s a huge commitment for the parents. We want to raise $13,000 and we’ve raised $10,000 so far,” said Collins.
They have had a variety of fundraising projects like bottle drives and selling food at Alfond Arena during games.
They are looking forward to the national tournament.
“We’re all pumped up,” said Tuell. “We know it’s going to be tough competition, but an opportunity like this only comes once in a lifetime for a lot of hockey players.”
“We’re going to be one of the youngest teams there and we may not be the most skilled, but we’ll try to grind it out,” said Alexander. “We’ll play with heart.”