Maine high school hockey has grown dramatically since the 1970s, but a sluggish economy and the sport’s high expense have forced several schools to form cooperative teams so their players have the opportunity to play.
“In order to survive, people do things they never thought they would have to do,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association. “In some cases, co-op teams are the only ways schools can continue to offer hockey.”
Durost praised the MPA’s ice hockey and management committees for “waiving a lot of rules pertaining to co-op teams” to allow schools to offer their student-athletes an opportunity to play hockey.
The Old Town-Orono Black Bears became the 12th co-op team this season among 42 in schoolboy hockey.
Schoolgirl hockey began play in 2009 and it has five co-op teams among its 15.
“There has been a lot of work and cooperation taking place between [co-op] schools to provide kids with the opportunity to play hockey,” said Mike Burnham, the MPA’s assistant executive director, who oversees hockey.
High school hockey’s dilemma
Schoolboy hockey has grown to 42 teams after fielding only five in 1975 — Lewiston, St. Dominic of Lewiston, Waterville, Brunswick and Edward Little High of Auburn — but some teams are now struggling to fill their rosters.
When Dennis Martin was playing for Waterville in the mid-to-late 1980s, he recalled 75 players trying out for the team.
As the head coach of the Purple Panthers, Martin guided them to a state Class A title in 2009. But numbers began decreasing and they had only 14 players on the varsity team last season and went 4-14 in Class A, which led them to drop to Class B this winter.
Waterville has explored having a co-op team, he said.
Martin blames the economy and the high expense of the sport for the dwindling numbers in the youth programs that serve as feeder systems for high school teams.
“It’s at least $800 to play house league youth hockey, including equipment, and that doesn’t include the travel costs,” according to Martin.
“A few years ago, it looked like gas prices were going up to $4.50 to $5 a gallon. People were losing their jobs so everybody had to tighten their belts,” Brewer High coach Dave Shedd said. “People were worried. They weren’t getting involved with the sport as much as they were previously.”
Greg Hirsch, who coached Orono High for 19 years before stepping down after last season, said one of the primary problems in filling a high school roster is the fact several communities have combined under one umbrella for youth hockey.
This season the Penobscot Valley Hockey Conference has become the Maine Junior Black Bears and involves Bangor and surrounding communities, with the exception of Brewer, which has its own house league.
Hirsch said because several communities are under the same jurisdiction, “You don’t have a problem filling a roster for a squirts or a peewee team. But when they reach the high school level, they go to different schools and that can create a huge problem [numbers-wise].
“If each community had its own program, they would be more motivated to recruit kids to play the game,” he added. “There needs to be more of a sense of urgency.”
Messalonskee High of Oakland coach Mike Latendresse said another factor affecting hockey participation is the number of athletes who are involved in other sports year-round like soccer and basketball.
Even though Messalonskee is 9-0 this season, 47-7 over the past two and half seasons and has won back-to-back Eastern Maine Class B titles, Latendresse has never had enough players to field a junior varsity team in his 12 years at Messalonskee and he said it wouldn’t surprise him if the school wound up as part of a co-op team some day.
Burnham pointed out that the state’s junior hockey programs, which offer many more games than the 18 regular-season games allowed under MPA guidelines and better competition, have also hurt high school hockey numbers.
He added that the time constraints put on families have been a deterrent at all levels of hockey.
Youth hockey wants more players
While some high schools teams are battling to keep their numbers up, the state’s youth hockey association participation numbers are staying fairly consistent, but the associations’ leaders would like them to improve.
Mike Boulet, president of the Central Maine Youth Hockey Association, said their youth league numbers are down “very slightly” to just under 200 members.
Bob Needham, the director of Maine Junior Black Bears’ Learn to Play Program, said the association’s overall program has 260 members, the same as last year, and admitted “we’d like to see the numbers go up.”
The Freeze, the area’s more competitive travel teams, has another 100 members, he added.
John Veilleux, president of the Casco Bay Hockey Association, said they are “holding steady at 800 but we could sustain up to 200 more.
“Our problem is a lack of quality ice times because we can use only three rinks. We do have a fourth rink available at [the University of New England in Biddeford] to handle overflow,” said Veilleux.
Ten of the 15 high school girls hockey teams are from the Portland-Cumberland area to York and they also vie for ice time.
Boulet said the battle to keep participation numbers steady isn’t just a hockey issue.
“It’s in all sports, not just hockey,” he said. “I grew up in Winslow and when I played [youth league] football, there were six to eight teams. Now there might be one or two.
“If you look at the demographics, there are fewer kids in many of our districts and that means there are fewer kids playing organized sports,” he added.
The youth associations try to keep participation costs down.
“Hockey seems to be an expensive sport but people have to realize that it’s a long season. It starts in October and goes through March,” said Needham.
Boulet said it costs $400 for a youngster to register for Central Maine’s house program and added that “you can generally find hockey equipment for quite reasonable prices.”
Veilleux said a player can be outfitted in used equipment for approximately $250.
There is a $500 registration fee for house league hockey and a $950 registration fee for travel hockey in the Casco Bay Hockey Association.
The Maine Junior Bears registration fees range from $225 for the Mini-Mites (under 8) to $625 for the bantams (13-14-year-olds).
Brett Hale, a former Old Town High School coach who is coaching the Maine Freeze squirts travel team, said if a player wants to play travel hockey rather than house hockey, it is $2,500-$3,000 per year, which includes hotel costs, gas money and other travel expenses.
Needham oversees the Learn to Play program for the Maine Junior Black Bears and he said they have 80 youngsters registered of all ages. They used to have more than 100.
It is a free program this season thanks to Hale, who contacted local businesses and raised $6,000 to donate to the program.
“We want to entice kids to start playing hockey,” said Hale. “It’s the best sport there is and once you start playing, you get hooked.”