A-L Sports Hall of Fame: Gagne found the spark

Norm Gagne didn't know what he wanted to do with his life.

Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Lewiston High School hockey coach Norm Gagne gives instructions to his players during the 2008 Class A State Championship hockey game at the Colisee in Lewiston.

Bored with business school and dreading making it his vocation, the man who would one day demand complete focus from his hockey players didn't know what direction he wanted to take.

"I floundered around for many years," Gagne said. "I went from one college to another one and was failing because I had no passion for what I wanted to do."

Gagne's father, Norm, was coaching middle school hockey in Auburn and asked him to be his assistant coach. It would soon become clear to both of them what lay ahead for the younger Norm Gagne.

"I think that gave me the spark," Gagne said.

The spark ignited a passion for coaching that still burns after 39 years of coaching high school hockey, a passion that produced three state hockey titles at Gardiner, three more at Waterville and 658 career victories, which puts him third all-time among the nation's high school hockey coaches.

On Sunday, the 1963 Edward Little High School graduate will be inducted into the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame, joining a number of coaches who inspired Gagne as a three-sport athlete and, ultimately, as a coach.

"(The Hall of Fame) sent me a brochure with all of the past inductees, and there  were so many names of guys that are in there that I either played with in high school, played against or were coaches of mine," he said. "I think the thing that hit me the most were the coaches. There were four that were real close to me that are in the Hall of Fame and I really feel honored to be in that group with them."

Gagne cited Steve Grenda, Art Belliveau, Jim Bouchles and Dick Osgood as influences. But the coach who changed his life more than any of them was Linc Gordon, the coach of Edward Little's fledgling hockey team.

Gagne was a junior and practicing with both the varsity hockey and basketball teams in preseason when Gordon asked him to choose. Gagne asked what his role would be on the hockey team. When Gordon told him he'd be the starting goalie, Gagne chose hockey. The rest is history.

"I don't think I'd have taken the path I did (if he had chosen basketball)," Gagne said.

Finding his path

An outstanding first baseman, Gagne was a natural in goal.

"He was a fantastic athlete," said life-long friend and teammate Gerry Mitchell, who will present Gagne at Sunday's banquet. "He's catching everything that's shot at him. If it's six inches off the ice, he's catching it."

Edward Little's hockey program was in its infancy, but with Gagne in net and talented players such as Mike Roy, Mark Fournier, and the Chabot brothers, Bobby, Paul and Roger, the Red Eddies gained immediate respect. They beat Lewiston and Waterville and tied St. Dom's.

"For a while during that season, we were No. 1 in the league," Gagne said. "We made it to the playoffs each year and we gave everybody a run for their money."

"Norm was the backbone," said Mitchell, who is now a pastor in Los Angeles County in California. "He was a fierce competitor and a great teammate."

Gagne continued to play baseball, his first sport, and some basketball in college, as well as some amateur hockey. His father saw how coaching re-stoked his competitive fire and encouraged Gagne to pursue it.

"He said 'Maybe you should go into teaching so you can coach.' I ran into (Lewiston football coach) Norm Parent and he said the same thing to me," Gagne said.

Gagne earned an associate's degree in business education at Bliss College in Lewiston. Married and raising a young son, he then enrolled in the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where he played baseball for Peter Storey, whose father, Ray, had coached Gagne in junior high.

After Gagne's junior year at UMPI (he earned All-NAIA honors both years there), Peter Storey left to become athletic director at Gardiner High School. The summer after he graduated from UMPI, Gagne ran into Storey at a Winthrop restaurant.

Storey invited him to Gardiner for an interview, and after meeting with the school principal and superintendent, Gagne applied for a job. Storey hired him on the spot to coach freshman football and the principal hired him to teach math and physical education.

Make a difference

Gagne taught virtually every subject over the course of his teaching career and is just as proud to see former students who he impacted with his teaching as former players he inspired.

"I wanted to inspire people and I've been able to. I don't know why. I'm enthusiastic about what I'm doing. I always have been," he said. "You've got to believe that what you're doing is important, that you can make a difference in their life."

To make that difference, Gagne drew upon his experience playing for several future A-L Sports Hall-of-Famers. First and foremost, he would, like them, be a disciplinarian.

"I think you've got to be focused on doing the little things and the right things in the right way in order to be successful," Gagne said.

Gagne didn't just want his teams to be hard-working, he wanted them to be relentless. For that to happen, he would have to be a supreme motivator. If he wanted players to go through a brick wall for him, he would have to make them want to go through a brick wall for him.

"I tell them that hockey is just a tool for me to teach you what you're going to face when you leave high school, when you get out into the real world. How are you going to face adversity? Are you going to cow down and pack it in or are you going to be able to step up to the occasion?," Gagne said.

Gardiner hockey was a club team when Gagne became the coach in 1974. By 1981, they had their first Class B state championship. In 1983, the Tigers rallied from 4-1 deficit going into third period, scoring six goals in six minutes to beat Cony for their second state title. A third came two years later.

Lewiston once offered Gagne its coaching job, but didn't have a teaching job to back it up, so he stayed at Gardiner for 13 years. Waterville did have a teaching job for him, but he turned that job down, too, before his father convinced him to change his mind.

"My dad was on his death bed at Central Maine Medical Center, he had cancer. I went to see him and he told me 'You've got to go to Waterville. It's a Class A program and you're going be able to flourish there,'" Gagne recalled. "Well, I had turned down the job that day. Skip Hansen, the principal, wanted me, and he had every coach in the school calling me every 15 minutes telling me I should go to Waterville. I called him back and told him I'd take the job."

In 17 years at Waterville, Gagne won three Class A titles (1991, 1996, 2001) and coached some of the top players in the state, including Jeff Libby, Trapper Clark and Nate Hart. Having moved to Gorham to be closer to wife Ronda's family, he resigned from Waterville in 2004 and took a job as co-coach at Cheverus. He resigned from that position before the season started and coached at Gorham instead.

No regrets

After a year at Gorham, he went to Lewiston, against the advice of his mother, Jeanette.

"My mother did not want me to coach there," Gagne said. "She's always known that the hockey program is very, very political. It's almost like a pecking order in Lewiston."

The Blue Devils were 46-21-4 and lost three state championship games in Gagne's three years as coach. But after the third year, Gagne refused to sign a performance evaluation because he felt it was too heavily influenced by players' parents.

"It was only a few parents, but they were politically connected to the superintendent. I told them I wasn't going to go away from my principals. I wasn't going to back down to them and let them run the program," Gagne said.

Gagne's contract wasn't renewed. Lewiston officials said Gagne resigned. Gagne said he didn't.

"I have no regrets. I loved my kids at Lewiston. I don't hold them responsible. The parents are going to be the parents," Gagne said. "When you look at the big picture, I know that I had a good staff that loved those kids, that nurtured those kids and that worked hard with those kids."

He said it's the parents that have changed the most in his four decades of coaching.

"They've lost their way. They all want to be buddies to their kids, and to be an effective parent, you can't do that," he said. "And then they wonder why they go astray and get in trouble, because (the parents) don't back the people they should be backing. They should be backing their teachers and their coaches."

Jay Mazur immediately hired Gagne to join his staff at Scarborough. When Mazur stepped down in 2009 to take an administrative position, Gagne was hired as head coach.The Red Storm have taken an extra step in each of his three years, reaching the regional quarterfinals, semifinal and final.

Gagne, now 68 and with three grandchildren, plans on sticking around to see if he can get them to the next step.

"If I can stand up on skates and I can still make an impact in my kids' lives, I'll keep doing it," Gagne said.

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Bob Woodbury's picture

Ya done good, Normie.

A well deserved honor. We miss you in Waterville.

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