Don Finley, the athletic director at Skowhegan High School, said his ice hockey players used to consider their early morning practices at Winslow’s Sukee Arena a “badge of courage.”
They would leave the high school at 4:30 a.m. for practice an hour later at Sukee, which is 26 miles away.
They will practice in the afternoon or evening and will play in Eastern Maine Class A.
“It’s better for them as students not to have to get up at 3:30 in the morning,” said Finley. “It was tough for them although they handled it well. Having afternoon and evening practices is a big plus.”
Both teams had low numbers and were in jeopardy of losing their programs, explained Finley.
So they decided to merge and become the state’s 12th cooperative team.
“It’s a necessity now. Hockey is in trouble. We could have lost two programs within a year or so. This will help save them for a while. I can’t tell what’s going to happen down the road. But this keeps hockey going for a bunch of kids now,” said Finley.
Each team reached the quarterfinals in their respective classes a year ago.
Skowhegan went 12-6-1 in Eastern A and Lawrence finished at 6-13 in Eastern B.
Their colors will be blue (Lawrence) and orange (Skowhegan) and former Lawrence coach Ted Fabian is the head coach. He will have assistants from both schools.
They held their first practice on Monday night, and Finley reported that there were 25 players and the numbers were evenly split among the two schools.
“We’d also like to play some JV games,” said Finley.
The two schools are sharing the funding costs and the hockey boosters clubs have combined to help pay for the new uniforms.
Beginning next week, the two schools will share a bus to practices and games.
“They pick us up at school and we stop to pick up the Lawrence kids since it’s right on the way to Sukee. We’re 26 miles from the rink and Lawrence is seven,” said Finley.
“There has been a good working relationship between the two schools,” said Lawrence athletic director Bill MacManus. “And the two boosters clubs are working very closely with each other as one team.”
Lawrence-Skowhegan was based on alphabetical order, explained MacManus.
Skowhegan used to occasionally practice at the outdoor arena in the Skowhegan Fairgrounds but won’t have to endure that hardship anymore.
The unpredictability of the winter weather posed a problem at the outdoor facility.
“We couldn’t get many days in and, sometimes in February, it was too warm,” said Finley. “And it was so hard on the skates. They got dull.”
The schedule will be similar to last year’s Skowhegan schedule with 12 games against “A” teams and six against “B” schools.
“We have received great cooperation from the other schools in putting together our schedule,” said MacManus.
The team will make a trip to Aroostook County to play Class B teams Houlton-Hodgdon and Presque Isle on successive nights.
“We didn’t want to leave them out in left field [by taking them off the schedule],” said MacManus.
Finley said the players are excited about the merger.
“Skowhegan and Lawrence have been rivals for a long time but the kids play summer hockey together so they know each other. It has been a pretty positive experience,” said Finley.
There are three other co-op teams among the 10 in Eastern A: Cony-Monmouth, Mount Ararat-Lisbon and Poland-Gray-New Gloucester.
In Eastern B, there are two co-op teams among the nine as Houlton-Hodgdon will be joined by first-time co-op team Old Town-Orono.
Western A has Lake Region-Fryeburg Academy-Oxford Hills, Marshwood-Traip Academy, Massabesic-Old Orchard Beach, Noble-Wells and Portland-Deering among its 12 teams and Western B has just one, Maranacook-Winthrop, among its 11.
Hall-Dale used to be with Maranacook and Winthrop but isn’t involved in hockey any more.
Cony of Augusta and Monmouth are in the second year of their two-year agreement.
“It has been a good fit. It worked well last year. The numbers had been going down,” said Cony AD Paul Vachon. “We’re only around 10 miles apart.”
Monmouth never had its own hockey team and contributes two to four players. The players from the two schools have played youth hockey together.
Vachon said they will re-evaluate their agreement after the season.
The team practices and plays its home games at the new Bank of Maine Ice Vault in Augusta.