Maine’s high school hockey campaign has taken on an entirely new look during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teams have been playing in regional pods, dressing fewer players and wearing masks at all times during a reduced, 12-game regular season. Games are played in 23-minute halves instead of three 15-minute periods. There are no overtimes.
Even with the changes, players and coaches adapted and were thankful to have the opportunity to play.
The seven teams in the eastern Maine pod, which includes five Penobscot County teams and two from Aroostook County, wrap up their regular seasons Saturday. Their single-elimination tournament begins next week.
“It has been an interesting season to say the least,” Bangor High junior center Daniel McCarthy said. “We’re glad to have a season. A lot of teams have shut down.”
Bangor is the only Class A school in the pod while the others are in Class B.
Instead of playing teams like Lewiston and Auburn-based schools Saint Dominic and Edward Little, the Rams have been playing their Class B neighbors.
“I didn’t think there would be as much competition. But there has been quite a bit of competition,” McCarthy said. “There are a lot of good teams like Old Town-Orono and Hampden Academy.”
The Rams are 5-2-1, including a loss and a tie against Old Town-Orono, a 2-0 loss to Hampden Academy and close wins over Presque Isle, John Bapst and Brewer.
Three-time defending Class B North champion Old Town-Orono has been forced to practice and play at Sawyer Arena in Bangor because Alfond Arena at the University of Maine is not available.
Early morning practices at Alfond have been replaced by night practices at Sawyer.
“I don’t know if we could ask for any better considering the circumstance that we’re in,” Old Town-Orono senior center and captain Tanner Evans said.
“We definitely miss the Alfond but this has been pretty good.”
The swift-skating Black Bears looked at home Wednesday night when they outshot Bangor 40-13 en route to an impressive 4-1 victory.
“The ice is a lot faster here than at the Alfond,” said Evans, whose Black Bears are 6-0-1 at Sawyer.
Old Town-Orono has won seventh straight after tying Bangor and losing to Brewer to open the season. The Black Bears have outscored their opponents 38-12.
“Our goals this year were to be the top seed and win the playoffs,” said Old Town-Orono coach Chris Thurlow, whose team assured itself of the top playoff seed with the win over Bangor.
“We have been really consistent this year. We’ve played a lot of good games and done a lot of good things,” junior goalie Aiden Rand said.
The Black Bears have a dynamic top line of Evans between senior Zach Needham and sophomore Carter Walls. Evans has eight goals and 19 assists, Needham has 13 goals and nine assists and Walls has contributed five goals and six assists.
Old Town-Orono has received supplemental scoring from the second line of Adam Henderson, Perry Collatos and Colby Pawson (3 goals) and the third line of Jacob Davis, brother Dylan Davis (3 goals) and Blaine Murray (3 goals).
Thurlow said his defense has been reliable, led by junior Connor McCannell along with Noah Thibodeau, Peyton Vose, Tyler Kenney, Chase Campbell and Jackson Lizzotte.
“We play all six defensemen and that’s rare in Class B hockey,” Thurlow said.
Rand and Roman Fremouw have provided steady goaltending.
Because it is a co-op program, Old Town-Orono follows COVID-19 protocols at both schools.
For the first two weeks of the season, Thurlow had to conduct separate practices for two groups of Old Town players and one for Orono players. Their first full team practice wasn’t until two days before their first game.
“But we’re clicking now,” he said.