For 11 weeks, six members of the 20-player Maine Moose Under-18 Midget hockey team traveled from Orono and Brewer to Kents Hill and back again.
All the work and travel paid off Sunday when the Moose defeated last year’s national champion, Lewiston, 3-0 in the state final and earned a berth in the national championships in Lansing, Mich., March 28-April 1.
Orono High School team members Andrew Holt, Michael Brown and Zach Williams and Brewer High teammates Patrick Spaulding, Joe Fowler and Michael Shedd were all big contributors for the Moose.
“Of all the kids, they were the ones we could count on,” said coach Jeff Ross. “They were there for every practice, they were there every game and they had the longest travel of anybody.”
The six and their teammates started practicing at the end of August with two practices during the week, later scaled back to one a week, and up to three games on most weekends. They played about two dozen games, including the postseason.
The reason for all the travel is because Maine Moose Hockey is based in Augusta, but its teams had to use Kents Hill’s Bonnefond Arena due to the collapse in March of their home rink, Kennebec Ice Arena in Hallowell.
The six made the three-hour round trip easier on themselves by carpooling.
Moose co-owner Ben Gray, who is also the general manager, was happy the players made the effort.
“They’re a big part of the team,” he said.
Ross, who also coaches the Gardiner Area High School team, was even more enthusiastic about having them.
“We were ecstatic,” he said. “That’s an area we wanted to tap into. There’s a lot of talent up there.
“We’re excited to have them here.”
They provided a big part of the Moose defense, with Brown and Spaulding as the goalies and Shedd, Holt and Williams as defensemen. Fowler played forward.
Ross evaluated each of the eastern Maine players, saying of Brown, “He’s solid. He tracks the puck well [and] he controls rebounds.”
“The guy’s a star,” added Ross. “He was impressive.”
Spaulding was the only one of the six who played for the Moose last year.
“He’s another solid goalie. He handles the puck, he’s quick up and down. … He’s an absolute star back there,” said Ross.
Fowler is fast on his skates.
“He has speed to burn,” said Ross. “I think he worked on his offensive skills, he’s composed with the puck in the defensive end. … He’s a nice well-rounded player.”
Holt “was our shut-down guy,” according to Ross, but “he was really dedicated to getting better.”
“He … always wanted to know what he needed to work on,” according to Ross.
Holt even pestered his mother for help.
“He always wanted me to shoot video of him,” said Nancy Forster-Holt.
“Then he would analyze the video.”
“I was really pushing [Williams] to use his size,” said Ross. “By the end he was throwing his weight around.”
Ross describes Shedd as tough but not rough.
“He never saw a hit he would back down from,” stated Ross. He pointed out that Shedd didn’t go looking for hits and he didn’t draw many penalties.
Most of the Moose participate for one reason.
“The kids are here for the most part to play better in high school,” said Ross.
“It was a decision they all made to play at a different level and be better prepared for the high school season,” said Forster-Holt.
The Moose program is geared toward that improvement.
“Our No. 1 goal is to prepare them for their high school team,” said Ross.
“It’s a fine line, a balancing act, between developing players and winning.
“I’m a firm believer you need to learn to win as well.”
The key to improvement is playing against other strong teams. The league is basically a collection of six all-star teams.
Holt, 16, welcomed the challenge.
“I got to play against kids I wouldn’t usually play against during the high school season,” he said. “There are a lot of Class A players. [The] Lewiston [team] is made up of players from Lewiston, St. Dom’s, and there are prep school players.”
Orono and Brewer are both Class B hockey schools.
“There’s a big difference between Class A and Class B players, and especially prep school,” said Holt.
The fine line gets redrawn, though, at the end of the season.
“In the playoffs, we move from developing players to winning,” Ross said.
That shift focus led the Moose, who were 4-5-1 during the league’s regular season, to the title game for the second straight year.
In the round robin, the Moose defeated Lewiston, which had beaten the Moose twice, lost to Casco Bay, for the third time, and beat the Portland Junior Pirates for the third time. They fell behind 3-0 to Casco Bay in the semifinals before rallying for the win and blanked Lewiston 3-0 in the final.
“The whole team stepped up,” said Gray of the final.
Holt found what he was looking for in the program. During preseason skills clinics this week, he has found his speed has improved significantly.
“I’m really confident going into the high school season,” he said.
Gray hopes more eastern Maine players decide to make the trip next year.
“Based on the success of the Moose program, I think we’ll continue to see more come down,” he said.