BANGOR, Maine — Bangor High School athletic director Steve Vanidestine is adamant about it.
“I would love to add girls [ice] hockey,” said Vanidestine. “The only thing stopping us is the numbers.”
But the numbers are growing and there may be at least one team from the Bangor-Brewer area earning varsity status in the near future.
On the eve of the fourth season of the Maine Principals’ Association-sanctioned schoolgirl ice hockey season, University of Maine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead and wife Dena are two of the ringleaders hoping to see varsity ice hockey become a reality for their 12-year-old daughter Natalie and several other girls in the Bangor area.
“Our goal is to create a regional high school team within the next couple of years,” said the Maine coach. “It’s very exciting. It’s been a four- or five-year progression.”
There isn’t a high school girls varsity hockey team north of Winslow.
For the first time, there are two all-girls teams under the Bangor Youth Hockey banner, an Under-14 team and an Under-12 team. There had been just an Under-14 team previously.
The players are primarily from Bangor, according to Dena Whitehead, but there are also players from surrounding towns.
If there aren’t enough Bangor High players, they can form co-op teams. Co-op teams are comprised of players from more than just one high school.
Five of the 15 girls hockey teams in the state are co-op teams.
The only stipulation, according to MPA assistant director Mike Burnham, is that if the enrollment of the high schools involved in a co-op team exceeds the enrollment of Maine’s most populous high school, they must file a waiver request with the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee and have it approved.
Three of the current co-op teams have schools with a combined enrollment higher than Lewiston High School, which had the highest enrollment (1,328) based on the last census taken in the spring of 2010.
The co-op team composed of players from Bonny Eagle High School in Buxton and Gorham High had 2,079 for a student enrollment, Portland High and Deering High of Portland had 1,941 and Edward Little of Auburn and Leavitt of Turner had 1,656.
“If Bangor High School was involved with a co-op team, they would need a waiver,” said Burnham, noting that Bangor High’s enrollment was 1,240 in the spring of 2010.
The other schools that could form a co-op team with Bangor would be Brewer (enrollment 750), Old Town (560), John Bapst of Bangor (447) and/or Orono (334).
“I would love to add more girls hockey teams,” said Burnham.
He said each co-op waiver is scrutinized individually.
There are co-op teams with as many as three high schools involved such as the boys hockey team involving Maranacook of Readfield, Hall-Dale of Farmingdale and Winthrop.
Burnham said in order for a co-op team to become a reality, the school boards of the respective institutions must approve it and the team name must include both schools in it.
Would it be possible for a co-op team composed of players from Bangor, Brewer, John Bapst, Old Town and Orono to get its waiver approved?
“I think the management committee would look at that carefully. They would see how it would impact the sport across the state,” Burnham said.
But he also reiterated that the MPA is all in favor of adding teams in order to give more student-athletes an opportunity to participate in a varsity sport.
“Our next step will be to encourage the local high schools to form a regional team within the [MPA] rules,” said Tim Whitehead. “I would love to see two teams up here. You could have a Bangor-Brewer team as well as an Old Town-Orono team. It would set up a natural rivalry.”
Vanidestine said if the numbers indicate that they could form a girls team or a co-op team, “I’ll push hard for it.
“We don’t want to hold them back. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
He said they would make budgetary concessions if they had to in order to add girls hockey and supply athletes with the equipment and the ice time that the boys varsity team receives.
“If it ever came down to having either a girls varsity hockey team or a boys JV team, we would choose the girls varsity team,” said Vanidestine.
But nothing will become a reality unless the numbers of girls interested in playing varsity hockey makes it possible.
Dena said there are 23 players on the two Bangor Youth Hockey teams.
There are also girls playing on boys teams, including Vanidestine’s niece junior Ally Vanidestine. She has been on the boys JV team the past two years and is trying to make the varsity team this season.
Her older brother T.J. was a standout for the Bangor High School boys varsity hockey team.
Dena Whitehead said she would like to have an extended play season in the spring that would “pull together girls from other [boys] teams to play with the older players in our program.”
The two girls Bangor Youth teams play other girls teams across the state and also play some local boys teams.
“They practice two or three times a week and play games on weekends just like the boys teams do,” said Tim Whitehead.
He said they are very fortunate to have four quality coaches involved with the teams in Steve Cheff, Greg Eastman and former UMaine women’s hockey standouts Kim Meagher and Jennie Gallo.
Girls hockey is different than boys hockey because body checking is not allowed at any level, including college.
One recent change instituted by USA Hockey has seen them push back the age where body checking becomes introduced for boys.
They used to be able to start body checking at the peewee level (ages 11-12), but now they can’t start body checking until the bantam (13-14) level.
Tim Whitehead points out that several girls give up on the sport because they have to play on boys teams and they are at a distinct disadvantage when body checking becomes introduced.
“Some of them are in a real tough spot,” said Whitehead. “They don’t have a [varsity girls] team to go to.”
He is hoping to help give them that opportunity.
The girls and boys high school games consist of three 15-minute periods, but Burnham pointed out that the ice is resurfaced only after the second period of the girls games. It’s resurfaced after the first and second periods of the boys games.
Whitehead is optimistic that girls hockey will continue to grow in the Bangor area and that will lead to girls varsity teams.
And he said having varsity teams would give girls at younger ages (5-6) something to aspire to when they get older.
“That’s the goal,” said Dena Whitehead.