Lewiston-Auburn has a unique opportunity sitting at its doorstep.
Whether it invites it in for coffee and cake, or leaves it shivering on the welcome mat remains to be seen.
Monday's announcement that the 2014 Division III Men’s Hockey Championship is coming to Lewiston set the stage for such a decision. The NCAA, in conjunction with Bowdoin College of Brunswick (the closest school to Lewiston with a Division III program), the Androscoggin Bank Colisee and the Maine Sports Commission, made the announcement quietly with a series of news releases.
There was no fanfare, no pomp and circumstance, no prefabricated assembling of the media with a handful of talking heads trotting out behind a microphone.
Quietly and simply, the NCAA, Bowdoin College, the Colisee and the Maine Sports Commission went about their business.
It draws many parallels to the way most NCAA championships are contested — in relatively quiet gymnasiums, arenas or stadiums, with little fan support beyond the families of those competing and a few, die-hard fans.
Of course the grandeur and glory of March Madness, the Bowl Championship Series, and even in recent years the College World Series' of baseball and softball have played out before greater audiences. All of those, though, have been at the Division I level.
Division II and Division III athletes endure much of the same training, similar schedules — and most of the time an increased academic load — when compared to Division I athletes. But rarely are these athletes thrust into a major spotlight.
The Division III Frozen Four is no different. I am willing to bet that most people, save for the die-hard fans at member institutions, would have a hard time naming last year's final four participants in the D-III hockey tourney.
Go ahead, Google-search it.
And bonus points if you can tell me where St. Norbert, Gustavus Adolphus, Oswego State and Amherst College are on a map.
Again, take your time loading them onto your favorite mobile device or computer.
Season after season, athletes in Division II and Division III toil in obscurity, many of them with a skill set good enough for a Division I school.
"A lot of our kids want to get on with their life, go to a good school and play in a quality program, rather than taking another year of junior hockey and staying out of school," Bowdoin College assistant men's ice hockey coach Jamie Dumont said Monday. "But in today's college game, the window between Division I and Division III, it's amazing how close they are."
Bowdoin plays in the academically-gifted New England Small College Athletic Conference, or NESCAC. It counts among its rivals Colby College of Watervile and Bates College of Lewiston (though not in hockey. At least, not yet.) So on top of being great athletes, the students who play sports at these institutions also have to be intelligent.
Let's face it, some athletes at some Division I schools are not. At all.
So where is a perfect place for top-level athletes, with a wealth of knowledge, plying their prospective trades in relative anonymity, to decide a national championship?
Why not Lewiston-Auburn, Maine, a place with top-level executives and business minds, with a wealth of knowledge and expanding resources, who are plying their trades, many in relative anonymity to the world outside of Maine?
And to suggest that this kind of event is too big, or too ambitious for the Twin Cities is ludicrous. Maine — and specifically Lewiston-Auburn — has proven over and over again that it will support hockey. University of Maine, the Lewiston Maineiacs, the Portland Pirates and even the Maine Principals' Association high school hockey tourney are prime examples of hockey success at varying levels.
According to NCAA Division III Hockey committee chairman Don Olson, the previous tournaments at Lake Placid, N.Y. (Yes, that Lake Placid. Miracle-on-Ice Lake Placid) have drawn in the neighborhood of 3,500 fans per game over the three-game event. When the tourney went West in 2011 to Minnesota, it drew about 2,500 fans per game to a 3,000-seat arena.
Call me crazy, but filling the Colisee to capacity (an always-debated 3,677) for an event such as this should be a no-brainer. Especially with 13 months to prepare.
That's the key word: Prepare.
And here's the other word that needs to be key: Together.
Lewiston-Auburn is fast becoming (much to some people's chagrin, one way or the other) an entity unto itself. The cities are slowly, perhaps unintentionally, becoming completely dependent on one another, both economically and athletically. What happens to one city affects the other.
With a major event like the 2014 Division III Men’s Hockey Championship on the horizon, it's time for both cities to buckle down and start working more closely together — at the very least on this project.
While, like those Division III athletes, many people who live and work in these communities continue to toil in relative obscurity with little attention beyond our borders, this event provides an excellent chance to elevate Lewiston-Auburn and its surrounding communities into the spotlight, leading to bigger and better things.
The opportunity is there, right on the doorstep.
Now... about that coffee and cake...
Justin Pelletier is Sports Editor at the Sun Journal and a lifelong resident of Lewiston. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (@JPell915).