For five hockey players from eastern Maine, there were a lot of long nights spent commuting to the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell to practice and play for the Tier II 18-Under Maine Moose junior team. It was usually three nights a week, occasionally more.
But that labor of love for them culminated Monday in a Tier II national championship. The Maine Moose beat Mission Red of Arizona 6-3 in San Jose, California.
It was the third straight Tier II 18U national championship for the head coach Jeff Ross and the Moose.
Josh Wheeler and Brenden Gasaway of Old Town, Hampden’s Cooper Leland and Rece Poulin, and Corinth’s Gage Poulin formed a brotherly bond while traveling to Hallowell and Kents Hill beginning last August.
“To become as close as we did and to cap it off with a national championship … to be able to experience this with my best friends, there are no words for it,” said Rece Poulin, who added that all the long days and nights on the road were well worth it.
The Moose earned a spot in the national tournament by winning the state championship in November. They went 2-1 in round-robin play in a four-team bracket to earn a berth in the semifinals. The Moose beat the Affton Americans (Missouri) 3-1 and Ashburn Xtreme (Virginia) 6-3 before losing to group winner Mission Red 3-2.
In a crossover game, the Moose upset the other bracket winner, the Dallas Penguins, 5-2 to earn a rematch against Mission Red in the title game. The motivated Moose scored four first-period goals en route to the victory.
Left winger Leland and defense partners Rece Poulin and Wheeler scored goals, and Gasaway backstopped the win. And Gage Poulin’s three goals in the first four games were important in enabling the team to reach the final.
“To share this with guys you hang out with at home was great. Through all those rides, we spent so much time together. Every ride was a new [adventure]. We had fun. We have memories that will last a lifetime,” Wheeler said.
“We’ll always remember this. It’s something we’ll tell our kids about,” said Gage Poulin, Rece’s cousin.
Gage Pouliin also pointed out that they would have “beneficial” hockey discussions on their trips.
No one was taxed by the travel more than Wheeler, who is a freshman pharmacy student at Husson University in Bangor.
“I’d end up staying up pretty late doing homework, but it was definitely worth it,” Wheeler said. “There was never a time I was upset about going to practice.”
For Wheeler, it was two different championships in successive years. He helped lead Old Town/Orono to the Class B state championship in 2018.
“You couldn’t ask for a better way to end your hockey career than to win a state championship and then a national championship,” Wheeler said.
For Rece Poulin, it ended three years of frustration. His Maine Moose 16U and 14U teams didn’t reached the national championship game.
“It has been a long time coming,” Poulin said. “And to do it with the group we had meant a lot.
“How much we cared about each other really helped us along the way,” he said.
Ross put Wheeler and Rece Poulin together on a tandem for the national tournament, and it paid dividends.
“They play two different styles of game, but they complement each other well,” Ross said.
Poulin is a shutdown defensemen, and Wheeler has good hands, ice vision and a lot of hockey sense.
“It was really cool to have the both of us score in the championship game,” Rece Poulin said.
“We hadn’t played together all year, but the chemistry we developed throughout the year really helped us, and we played pretty well,” Wheeler said.
Ross said Leland was an energy player who is fast, strong and hard to get off the puck. Leland also played for Hampden Academy this season and was a Class B North first-team all-star.
Gage Poulin was tenacious from the opening whistle, Ross said, and was a force in front of the net on the power play.
Gasaway played in four of the five games and stopped two breakaways in the final, including one late in a two-goal game.
The other win went to former Houlton/Hodgdon goaltender Ian Neureuther, who made 52 saves in the win over Ashburn.
Ross pointed out that Neureuther backstopped last year’s 17U national championship team, and former Bangor High standout Derek Fournier was the goalie who keyed the 2017 16U championship.
Defenseman Drew Gardner of Glenburn is another eastern Maine player who was a contributor throughout the season but didn’t make the trip to San Jose.
After winning the state title, the team played in the United States Premier Hockey League until going to the national tournament.
The players felt they were underdogs, and Wheeler said they were definitely the smallest team in the tournament.
“But with our drive and our speed and everything else, when we all start clicking together, we’re hard to beat,” Rece Poulin said.
“The last two games were our best two games of the season,” Ross said.
“Everyone contributed during the tournament. And Coach [Ross] was awesome,” Gage Poulin said.
Oakland’s Dylan Cunningham and West Gardiner’s Joe Clark were the team’s leading scorers along with Cape Neddick’s Andrew Bertolini.
The others who played for the Moose this season were Nick Hemenway of Sabattus, Miles Kirby of Readfield, Zach Whitney of Chelsea, Gardiner’s Matt Poirier and Warren Karlberg, Ian Souther of Freeport, Michael Deveaux of Brunswick, Benny Lane-Robichaud of Mechanic Falls, Dalton McCann of York, Noah Poulin of Saco and Max Michaud of Wales.