BANGOR, Maine — Ben Wheeler, a 15-year-old from Hermon, plays Midget hockey for Bangor Youth Hockey, but that age-group (15-18) season comes to a halt in mid-November before the high school season begins.
Many of the participants play varsity hockey for their schools, but the players that don’t, or — in the case of Wheeler — can’t, are left out of the cold.
That was a situation that some thought should be addressed.
So was born the idea of a Winter Midget team.
“People in the league and some parents have talked about it quite a bit,” said Vince Caccese, the team’s head coach.
Caccese thinks it’s a good idea for more than one reason.
“This is an age when keeping up with some group positive activity is good,” he said. “It’s nice to finally see it come about.”
Caccese thought his coaching days were over.
“I have three boys, and I helped each one of their teams,” he said.
His oldest Vinny, is on the Winter Midgets, but he also plays JVs for Bangor. The other two have enough people helping already.
“I had decided to ‘retire,’ but I got called back in,” he said with a smile.
“But this is my first head coaching experience,” he said. “It’ll be interesting.”
Sixteen players are taking part.
“This is a lot better than sitting around all day doing nothing,” said Wheeler, whose school (Hermon High) doesn’t offer ice hockey.
“I’m really happy,” he said before a recent practice at Sawyer Arena. “Hockey is my favorite sport and this gives me a chance to play.”
High school junior varsity players are also taking advantage of the opportunity. The Maine Principals’ Association season restriction does not apply to JV players.
“For varsity, there’s practice every day there’s no game [except Sundays],” said Sam Sherwin, 16 and a Bangor High JV player. “There are usually four practices and two games a week for varsity. JV is … about half the time of varsity [in terms of practices and games].”
That leaves time available for a Winter Midget program that currently holds one practice a week and has two games scheduled against a Lewiston squad, Jan. 22 at the Colisee in Lewiston and Feb. 5 at Sawyer Arena in Bangor.
Just getting a chance to play or a chance to play more without it taking up all of their time has been a draw, according to Sherwin.
“Some haven’t played since three years ago [when they finished Bantams],” he said. “Or they might not be confident [about playing at their high school], but they still want to play.”
“Only three or four play JV,” said Vinny Caccese, the coach’s oldest of three sons. Gino and Anthony also play hockey. “Most didn’t make a team or stopped for a while.”
Sherwin is one of those who is availing himself of every opportunity to get on the ice.
“For a lot of us, we’re just trying to get more hockey,” he said.
More time on the ice means more chances to improve, and he wants to play varsity.
“I thought after Bantams two years ago, I was done with [winter youth hockey],” said Sherwin. “Now I have an opportunity to do it during the season. It gives me a chance to move up.”
Wheeler doesn’t plan on sitting around in the future either.
“Hopefully, I’ll be playing somewhere next year,” he said.
He could catch on at another school, but without a formal cooperative agreement between them, “I’ll only be able to play JV,” he said.
There is little chance that Hermon will start a high school team any time soon.
“There are probably about four, and that’s it, that play hockey,” Wheeler said.
So Winter Midgets it is.
Vince Caccese thinks the program has a chance of catching on in associations around the state. He thinks some may combine to form a single Winter Midget team so their kids can play, too.
“I’ve been contacted by folks from Penobscot Valley Hockey Conference,” said Caccese. The PVHC vice president in charge of Midgets is Russ Richards.
How Caccese’s players respond to the Bangor program likely will be the key.
“If the kids start having fun, the word will pass like wildfire,” he said.
And that will create the added opportunities they seek.
“We don’t want to be a practice team. The game is where the fun is,” Caccese said.