OLD TOWN, Maine — Beginning next season, longtime rivals Old Town and Orono hope to field a cooperative high school ice hockey team.
The school boards in the two communities approved the merger recently, and now it must receive approval from the Maine Principals’ Association during a meeting next Thursday.
If approved, the team would play in Eastern Maine Class B, according to MPA Executive Director Dick Durost.
Orono was in danger of losing its program due to low numbers as 13 of the 17 players on this year’s team were seniors and athletic director Mike Archer had noted that there appeared to be only two players coming in next year.
Orono went 8-9-1 this season and earned the fifth seed for the Eastern Maine Class B playoffs before being eliminated by fourth seed Hampden Academy, 5-4, in the quarterfinals.
Old Town will return 13 of its 17 players, 11 who were either freshmen or sophomores this season.
But the Coyotes went 0-18.
“I think this is the right move,” said Old Town Superintendent David Walker. “It makes sense. These kids play together as youngsters, but when they get to high school, they go their separate ways.
The move is a good one for hockey in the area, Archer said.
“We should be able to put a much stronger team on the ice and, hopefully, we’ll have good enough numbers to put together a solid JV program also,” he said.
“The vision was to secure the sport of hockey and its longevity for both communities,” Archer added. “This pretty much cements that kids in the Old Town-Orono region will be able to play hockey in the future. And we couldn’t have guaranteed that without each other.”
Walker said they secured an agreement that will keep them together by putting in a guideline that if one of the schools wants to back out, it must give one year’s notice and it can’t field an ice hockey team for 10 years.
“We didn’t see any sense going through the process if we were only going to do it for a couple of years. Hopefully, we’ll never have to enforce it,” Walker explained.
“The way we approached it was that as long as hockey was a viable option in Orono, we were going to play with Old Town,” said Archer. “We initiated the agreement, and we aren’t going to back out. By putting it in writing, we solidified it so that if something happens and I’m not the AD at Orono any more, the next AD understands what the guidelines are.”
There are currently nine cooperative teams in high school hockey that carry the name of at least two schools, and there are other teams with players from multiple schools that keep the name of the primary school. There were three players from Madison High School who played for Skowhegan High.
There were 43 schoolboy high school teams this winter and 16 schoolgirl teams of which four were cooperative teams.
Walker said they have explored the numbers of players from the communities involved in youth hockey and said that four years down the road it would be a struggle for the schools to field teams without a combined effort.
“It would not only be a struggle for Orono immediately, it could also be a struggle for Old Town long term,” he said.
The MPA’s Scholastic Management Committee will vote on the Old Town-Orono application next Thursday.
Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA, said they have a list of guidelines that have to be met for a cooperative team to ensure that “two very strong programs don’t come together to form a program that becomes dominant.”
If the schools don’t meet a specific criteria, they can ask for a waiver and that is what Old Town-Orono is doing, according to Durost.
Durost pointed out that one of the criteria is that “at least one of the schools must not have had a program over the past two years.
“However, in general terms, everybody recognizes the uniqueness of ice hockey and the committee has certainly been open to looking at each situation on a case-by-case basis. Some waivers have been granted and others have been denied.”
Cooperative programs in ice hockey are becoming “more and more the norm,” Burnham noted.
“Schools, number one, may not have enough student-athletes to field their own team. Number two, they may not be able to afford it [on their own]. It’s a very expensive sport,” said Burnham.
Walker said the committee the two schools put together to examine the merger did a “pretty thorough job” exploring the option.
He said a productive meeting last week in which the players, parents and boosters insisted they were all in favor of the merger, sold the Old Town school board on the idea.
If the merger is approved, one of the first orders of business is to advertise for a new coach.
Greg Hirsch stepped down after 19 years as the Orono coach and Ryan Bernard was a first-year coach at Old Town.
Archer said they have reached a tentative agreement to call the team the Old Town/Orono Black Bears and they will adopt the University of Maine colors: Columbia blue, dark blue and white. The players will be able to select the scheme for their uniforms, he said.
Walker said it was “commendable” the way the two rival communities bonded together.
“In the end, they looked at what was best for the kids,” said Walker.
Players from the two schools are embracing the merger.
“I definitely think it’s a good idea,” said Old Town winger Lizzy Colannino, who will be a sophomore next season. “[Orono and Old Town players] have been playing together since we were five years old.”
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting to see how it works,” said Orono right winger Makayla Brown, who will also be a sophomore next fall. “I just want to get better in hockey, and I’m glad we’re going to keep it going.”
Brown also said it will be nice to play on a team with another girl. Brown and Colannino are the only girls on their respective teams, and they have played together for several years prior to high school.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be playing hockey next year,” said Orono left wing Nash Allan-Rahill. “It’s exciting to know we’ll be playing. I know almost all of the Old Town kids. We played together for the Penobscot Valley Hockey Conference. It will be good to play with them again.”
He said it may be a little difficult in the beginning to get used to it, “but I’m sure we’ll all pull together.”
Orono right wing Seamus McKaig said he “loves to play hockey with anyone” and was impressed with the cooperation between the two communities that led to the merger.
“It was nice and clean. I don’t think there were any arguments. The biggest issue was the [punishment] for illegal substances and that was decided in one meeting.”
Brian Rahill, father of Nash Allan-Rahill, said “these kids just want to play a sport that they love.”