ROCKPORT, Maine — The Maine Coast Skaters Association youth hockey Tier III teams from the Camden-Rockport region are facing travel teams from associations that pool their talent — and the association teams are keeping up.
The Bantams, ages 13-14, are 9-1-1 and in third place in the nine-team league, only two points out of first. The Peewees, ages 11-12, are 8-1-1 and also third of nine teams, three points out of first. The Squirts, ages 9-10, are 7-1-2 and in first place in their four-team league.
“The last few years, we’ve seen a huge [improvement] in our skating development and it’s showing in our results,” said Dave Daniello, coaching director of the Maine Coast Skaters Association and head coach of the Tier III squirts.
The Maine Amateur Hockey Association a few years ago encouraged associations in each of the state’s five zones to pool their talent in order to create teams that have strong players at each position as an aid to the players’ development.
Under that plan, the Maine Coast Skaters Association hockey players would have to go to Brunswick or the Augusta area.
Either choice would involve trips of an hour or more for interested players.
So the group decided to aggressively pursue a program to improve their players.
“MCSA actually hired a person from the Bangor area to set up the program to work on skating development,” said Steve Hand, coach of the Bantams. “If you can’t skate, you can’t play hockey.”
That skating coach is Jesse Simko.
“For the last two or three years, Jesse Simko has been working with us on skating development,” said Daniello, who is also general manager of the spring-season Maine Sternmen. “We’re using the ADM [American Development Model] and it’s really paying dividends with our younger skaters.”
Each improvement, large or small, makes an effect on the ice.
“When you start getting better and better, the development is smaller and smaller, but it makes a big difference,” said Hand.
In addition to the skating, the Maine Coast Skaters Association has been recruiting kids from their area — Damariscotta to Stockton Springs — and that’s paying off, too. The total number of skaters is 164, up from around 140 the last couple of years, said Daniello.
“Ages 4-8 [Atoms and Mites] is where we’ve seen the biggest growth [40-50 Atoms],” he said, pointing to the base of skaters they’re building to support the house and travel programs. “We have focused on that a lot the last few years and it’s paying off now.”
He added, “I think everybody here sees what we’re doing and appreciates it and sees a good future.”
Still, Daniello was surprised by his team’s quick success.
“With the changes in the MeAHA [including some teams moving from Tier III to the higher-level Tier II], I didn’t know what to expect as far as leagues are concerned,” Daniello said.
He soon learned.
“We were competitive right off the bat,” he said.
He gives a lot of credit to his assistant coaches.
“The coaches we have in place has paid big dividends,” said Daniello, who has been an Maine Coast Skaters Association coach since the 2004-05 season. “I think our coaching staff is one of the best in the state.”
Because of the small league schedule, the Squirts also get to play tougher competition.
“Our Squirts can play 24 games, but in the [four-team] league, we only get 18 games, so I’m going out and filling with six other games,” said Daniello. “I love playing a higher-level team [such as the Maine Freeze and Central Maine Youth Hockey Tier II squirts]. It’s been very, very positive for us. It keeps the kids motivated.”
Where Daniello was surprised, Hand and Peewees coach Chock Griebel knew what they had, to a degree.
“Going in, I knew this was a pretty talented bunch of kids,” said Griebel. “The challenge is to get them to play as a team. They seem to have jelled pretty quickly.
“I have had a lot of confidence in these kids, but I didn’t expect this.”
He’s trying to keep his players from trying to showcase their own talents, to the detriment of the team, without extinguishing their spark.
“Kids are kind of self-motivated by goals. You don’t want to stifle that,” Griebel said.
Hand knew what he was getting with his Bantams because he has been coaching the same players, for the most part, for several years.
“Two years ago, they won the [Peewee] state championship and two years before that, they were the state runner-up [in Squirts],” said Hand. “They work together as a team. They’re a joy to coach.”
They’ve been strong defensively in the past, and they’ve added offense this year, scoring 52 goals and allowing 14.
Hand believes one attribute has aided all three teams.
“We have one principle, and I’m sure they could all recite it,” said Hand. “‘Practice and play to the best of your ability every time you step on the ice.’
“Every kid expects every other kid to skate at 110 percent every time. That is the expectation they have of themselves.”
And it’s working for them.
Soccer clinic/food drive
Seacoast United Blackbear will host the first Darling’s Community Clinic and Food Drive on Dec. 30 at the Mahaney Dome on the University of Maine campus in Orono.
The clinic will be held from 9 a.m. to noon. The first session, 9-10:30 a.m., will be for boys and girls ages 7-10. The second session, 10:30 a.m. to noon, is for 11- to 14-year-olds.
Registration should be done online, and the cost is $10 per player with a donation of five canned goods or $20 without donating canned goods.
For information, go to www.seacoastunitedblackbear.com and click on the Holiday Break Programs tab on the menu on the lefthand side.