ORONO, Maine — The Maine Amateur Hockey Association’s recent decision to open the borders of all of the state’s youth hockey associations is generating both hope and concern.
For the past eight seasons, 21 youth hockey organizations — such as Bangor Youth Hockey, for instance — had defined borders. They could only draw players from their defined area, except in rare circumstances.
The state was divided into five zones and the youth hockey groups were distributed among them.
But growing within the state were teams that didn’t observe borders, organizations such as the Portland Junior Pirates in Saco, the Maine Renegades based in Gorham and the Maine Moose of Augusta. They can draw players from all over the state, depending more on what they can offer for facilities, instruction, number of games and playing time rather than having exclusive rights to a certain area.
“We saw more and more associations without boundaries coming in,” said Tim O’Connor, president of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association.
The new teams were members of the Maine AHA but with a more focused presence.
“There are allied members and associate members,” said Todd Cray, president of the Maine Freeze.
“Associate members are organizations that have complete youth programs, squirts through midgets,” said Cray. “Allied members are [for example] the Junior Pirates, the Sternmen, the Moose that don’t have complete youth programs.”
Because the Maine AHA can’t prevent more such groups from setting up, the voting members decided to let all of the associations have open borders.
“It made a lot more sense if they were all equal,” O’Connor said.
In conjunction with the change to the open association policy, the Maine AHA eliminated its former transfer rule and instituted a release policy.
With that change, O’Connor said, “Parents can now choose what’s right for them. Some families are on the border [of two associations]. Now they can pick the one they liked the best, is the best fit or is the closest.”
There is still a lengthy form that has to be filled out before a player can move from one association to another. And there is one possible catch.
“Someone could try out, depending on the dates, for the Freeze, the Junior Pirates and the Moose,” said Cray. Roster spots could be held open on three teams until the player makes a decision.
“I’ve seen that happen in New Hampshire a lot,” said Cray.
Response from around the state was mostly guarded while the associations conduct tryouts for next season’s travel teams.
Fran Norris, travel director for the Casco Bay Hockey Association of Greater Portland, replied in an email, “We have no comment on the release policy at this time.”
Cray didn’t hesitate to voice his concern about the changes. The Freeze runs the Tier II (most skilled) and Tier III travel programs for Bangor Youth Hockey, Brewer Youth Hockey and the Penobscot Valley Hockey Conference.
“About eight years ago, the state went through arduous hours of meetings to restructure travel hockey,” said Cray. “Before, each association would have its own travel teams. They put in the zone system to improve travel hockey.”
The thinking was that teams would be stronger because good players would be concentrated among one or two teams per zone age group instead of one or two teams per association.
“It has been ultrasuccessful,” said Cray, whose Tier III bantams (ages 13-14) won the state championship in late February.
Cray met with Brewer Youth Hockey president Katie Doak, outgoing Bangor Youth Hockey president Cheryl Derrah and PVHC president Shane McCannell to see what they wanted to do.
“They thought it was best for travel hockey that the Freeze still handle it,” he said. “I’m thankful for that because we put quality coaches on the ice, and with stronger teams, we’ve been able to send teams to tournaments.”
As an example, Casco Bay of Portland won the Tier II bantams national championship last year and many of those players are competing for a midget minor (ages 15-16) crown this year.
Midgets is the one age group where all of the teams competed in the same league.
“The Moose, Junior Pirates, Sternmen and Renegades participate at midgets,” said O’Connor. “It has always been open at the midget level. We took the midget model and expanded it down.”
The Moose won the midget major (ages 17-18) title last fall and are also chasing a national title.
Adding those teams to the other statewide leagues raises hope for the future of the travel program.
“We were down to four teams at the bantam level,” said O’Connor. “When you’re starting to operate a league of four teams, you have to play each other six times.
“It makes more sense [to include more teams], especially when they’re at the same skill level.”
Also, teams would have more in-state games and wouldn’t have to travel to as many out-of-state tournaments to give the kids playing time.
Cray sees that as one of the few pluses.
“It might help the travel situation because there are very few teams in southern Maine who want to come up here,” said Cray. “Why would a team from southern Maine come up here when they have a lot more teams to choose from who are much closer?”
This would allow play against closer teams, such as the Moose, who played out of the former Kennebec Ice Arena in Hallowell and will return to the replacement arena when it becomes available. For now, they play at Kents Hill’s Alfond Arena.
Cray is pessimistic about the changes.
“Because of the ambiguity of the policy, I think there will be chaos the first year. All that work years ago and it will be flushed down the toilet,” he said.
“This didn’t undo the zones,” he said. “… The zone model is a steppingstone to this [open policy]. Years ago, the associations didn’t get along very well. Now [because of the zones], they know they can work together.”
O’Connor believes the changes will be good for Maine.
“Our hope is to keep more people in hockey. We’re all about people staying in hockey,” he said.