PORTLAND, Maine — Lewiston native Mark Anthoine is making his mark with the University of Maine men’s hockey team.
The sophomore forward is the fourth leading goal scorer for the Black Bears with eight, including a pair in the Frozen Fenway 5-4 overtime victory over New Hampshire on Jan. 7. Seven of his goals have come on the power play.
Anthoine gives a lot of credit to his three years with the Portland Junior Pirates, a youth hockey program which seeks to get players competing at a higher level by having them practice with and play against some of the best young hockey players in the region.
“That was huge,” said Anthoine of his decision to play for the Junior Pirates after his freshman season at St. Dominic Regional High School in Auburn. “For me it probably got me to where I am now.”
While Anthoine only had to travel about 30 miles down the Interstate, other players travel farther for the same opportunity.
“We actually have some youth kids from Bangor, and we have one from Old Town,” said Jeff Libby, the Junior Pirates’ youth hockey director who this week was named operations manager of the MHG Ice Centre in Saco, the Junior Pirates’ home facility.
“It’s a compliment to what we’re doing,” said Libby, a former UMaine and pro hockey player. “I like to think we’re doing something right for families to make that kind of commitment.”
Among the older Junior Pirates from Greater Bangor are defenseman Nic Cota of Bangor and forward Cody Cross of Old Town. They both play for the Junior Pirates’ entry in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, the second tier of the Junior Pirates’ junior travel squads.
The Junior Pirates include 14 youth teams. Most of those players are in the Biddeford-Portland area, while the junior teams include many who are still completing high school and are billeted with local families during the Junior Pirates’ season.
Parents appear to be willing to make the commitment because they can see the results, such as Cota, Cross and Anthoine.
“We have grown dramatically,” said Libby, who will mark two years with the organization next month. “We are maximum-sized for one ice sheet.”
That is probably only a short-term situation.
“We’re going to continue to grow,” said Libby. “We have plans for a second sheet.”
One plan would be to purchase the nearby Saco Public Works property as the city considers building a new facility on a much larger site just up Route 112, according to a story from the Journal Tribune of Biddeford.
“We have 300 kids from Learn to Skate up to Juniors,” said Libby. “We are full day-in and day-out. From 5 to 9 p.m., this is a busy place.”
Libby wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This time of year it’s long hours but fun hours,” he said. “There’s always something going on.”
“At the end of the day,” he added, “you hope they’re improving and having fun … and learn life lessons along the way.”
Beyond the hockey instruction and games, the players have in-house access to weights, a trainer and a satellite center of the Parisi Speed School, which provides speed, strength and agility training.
“The kids are definitely bigger and stronger,” said Libby. “I don’t think I touched a weight ’til prep school.”
Not only are they bigger and stronger, they’re busier.
And while they play more games, nearly 30 so far for the junior players such as Cota and Cross, Libby sees those as icing on the cake.
“Practice is more important than games,” he said. “I think it’s very beneficial for the kids.”
The top-level teams have more than 100 practices a season.
The key is learning, and games don’t guarantee that the puck will find every player.
“Get as many touches on the ice, that should be the focus at every level,” said Libby.
Those early sessions form the base for further instruction.
“Once you get the fundamentals down, then you can start working on team concepts,” Libby said.
“Everything was intense,” said Anthoine. “It was more professional — the travel, the locker rooms felt a little bit bigger and better, and you looked forward to bigger things.”
Libby understands Anthoine’s reaction.
“I just grew up in Waterville,” said Libby. “There’s a lot more opportunity now for players than when I was a kid.”
Playing in front of coaches is often a key ingredient in getting the chance to play in college — whether at the Division I level or Division III — or for the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Organizations such as the Junior Pirates concentrate good players in a team or league, allowing coaches to see more players at once than if they had to travel to numerous high school games.
Players used to have to go to prep schools for additional experience before going to college. The Junior Pirates are another way of achieving the same result.
“It definitely helped to get out and play with better players, get more exposure to colleges and junior teams,” said Anthoine. He spent two years in the U.S. Hockey League, recognized by many in hockey as the elite junior league in the country, after playing for the Junior Pirates and before enrolling at UMaine.
“It shows if you work hard and put your mind to it,” said Libby, “it can be done right here in this state.”