Biddeford has won three, while Falmouth, Thornton Academy and Cheverus have won two. These four schools all have one thing in common: They come from the West.
“They’ve been there the past several years and they’ve won championships so they tend to get more people,” Edward Little coach Craig Latuscha said. “When you win hockey games and win championships people want to go to your school.”
Only Waterville in 2009 has toppled a Western team in the state title. The Purple Panthers defeated St. Dominic Academy, then a member of the West. Waterville now competes in Eastern Class B.
The West’s reign over Class A boys’ hockey started in 2005 with Cheverus’ first of back-to-back titles and has continued through the current decade. Edward Little was the last Eastern team to hoist a state championship, winning consecutive titles in 2003-04.
“During that time period the EL hockey program was very deep,” Latuscha said. “We had a lot of talented individuals, not that we don’t have talented individuals now, but it was a lot deeper back then. You were rostering thirty to thirty-five kids, now you’re rostering twenty to twenty-five. To have an extra ten to fifteen kids in your program is definitely beneficial. And it depends on how many kids stay in the program. There are kids who play in Auburn that go to Northampton Academy or even St. Dominic Academy. That hurts your program.”
The West’s current run has come at the expense of Lewiston and St. Dom’s. The Blue Devils and Saints have played for a state title a combined 10 times in the past 11 years, including the past four. St. Dom’s is no stranger to the West, having competed in that conference until the 2010 season. Lewiston finished runner-up four consecutive years, from 2005-08, and most recently in 2011 and 2013.
“Falmouth and the central Maine area and southern Maine area are growing,” Lewiston coach Jamie Belleau said. “You see it in the youth levels and you’re seeing the development in the youth level is the result of the success at the high school level. The sport of hockey has always been known as being cost-prohibited in most cases, but in my opinion it’s growing in that neck of the woods and it’s paying off. You see a lot of good coaching down at the youth level on up to the high school level. That being said, I don’t think that has anything to do with the fact that the West is winning more recently than the East because you see that in the East as well.”
The Saints have 24 state titles to their name, four more than Lewiston and Waterville, but haven’t won one as a member of the East. Last year was the closest they’d come, falling in overtime to Falmouth.
“It’s haunting us, but we have the talent this year and hopefully we can bring it home,” St. Dom’s senior forward Brad Berube said. “I know Falmouth has a lot of the same kids and we have a lot of the same kids , so I think it’s going to be a battle. We have a lot of older kids, strong kids, even the young kids are strong and fast. We have two new goalies who are going to step up.”
The top teams in the East have gone with that, “to be the best you have to play the best” mantra this season. While Lewiston and St. Dom’s have always packed their schedules with Western opponents, Edward Little has joined them this season. The Red Eddies will play Scarborough twice and Noble/Wells, who were a combined 26-9-1 during the regular season last year.
“This year we’re going to look to play a tougher schedule,” Latuscha said. “We’re going to play a lot of tier 1 teams this year, which is different from last year. It will benefit us in the end. I’m looking at my freshmen and sophomores to fill the gaps. This year’s EL hockey family is going to be a little deeper than past years.”
EL junior defenseman Ben Steele said he’s played with kids from Western schools during his time in midgets. Since then, he hasn’t gone up against many Western foes.
“It’s been tough because we don’t really play too many teams from the West,” Steele said. “It’s always something new. When we play them it’s always a surprise. “They have a lot of hard-working kids and a lot of dedication.”
St. Dom’s schedule is packed with top-tier teams from the West. The Saints open the season with Scarborough, Biddeford and Falmouth — the top three teams last year in the West.
“We play them,” St. Dom’s coach Steve Ouellette said. “I don’t think it’s so much an East vs. West thing, it’s really those top eight, nine schools that are playing each other year in and year out. There’s more quality teams out there and things have expanded.”
Ouellette believes the West’s recent string of success is due in part to the proximity those schools have to a rink. This year there are 12 teams in the West and 10 in the East. Between those 12 Western teams are eight rinks. Five of those teams don’t share rink space with another opponent.
“The community they’re from, the kids are doing skating schools and hockey schools just like our kids are,” Ouellette said. “You look at the Biddeford area, there’s more rinks down in that area. To me it’s been a natural migration for teams like Biddeford and Thornton Academy as well. More kids down in those areas have access to rinks and are playing and have made themselves stronger.”
The East will quickly learn how its best stacks up against the best from the West. Lewiston battles Cheverus on Saturday and St. Dom’s plays Scarborough on Wednesday.