Hockey history: Lions Tournament wraps up 46th year

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AUBURN — Inside the Norway Savings Bank Arena on Monday, the score was 1-1 and youth hockey was in overtime.

It was not the first overtime, or the second, or even the third. It was the fourth.

Parents in the stands were cheering, clapping and yelling as their Mite hockey players — typically 7 or 8 year olds — were battling in a “marathon” that delayed the start of a Peewee game.

Finally, Mite skater Ramsey Hinkley of Greene scored, ending the game and sending the Orange Team on to the semifinals.

“The kids played with a lot of heart.” Green coach Jonathan Duplissis said. Orange coach Peter Hinkley praised Green goalie Colin Duplissis saying he had an “outstanding” game. “He must have had 30 shots. Finally, finally, we got one in.”

As news of a Mite game with four overtimes drifted into the lobby, tournament director Denise Gilbert smiled and said, “That’s the Lions Tournament.”

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The Lions Tournament, in its 46th year, is the longest running youth-hockey tournament in America, according to organizers. Through the years, it has changed but is still roaring.

It is now sponsored by the Maine Gladiators, which inherited the tournament that began with Catholic parish teams.

For decades, the tournament was held in Lewiston. For the past five years, it has been  in Auburn. Participants, which today number about 600, are fewer in number. Teams are no longer just from Lewiston-Auburn. They now travel from far and wide — Biddeford to Orono.

Years ago, there were cheerleaders. Today, girls play hockey.

The tournament used to take up the entire February school vacation. This year, the tournament started Friday and ended Monday.

The shortened schedule is due to several factors, according to tournament director Denise Gilbert and Maine Gladiators’ Denis Berube. One reason: Pushback from parents who said they cannot be at the rink all week. The weekend schedule will allow out-of-state teams to be invited next year.

Also, the Norway Savings Bank Arena has two rinks that doubles playing time and shortens how long the tournament needs to run, Gilbert said. Another factor is the other area youth hockey league, the Nordiques of Lewiston, are not involved in the Lions Tournament, which cuts down on the number of local players.

Still, Lions Tournament coaches and volunteers are proud of their hockey history.

“This is a celebration of youth hockey at the grassroots level,” Berube said. “We have travel teams more talented. They are not in this tournament. This is intended for our grassroots players, to light that fire in them having an interest in being a hockey player.”

Many tournament coaches and volunteers grew up in the program and want their children to experience the Lions Tournament, Berube said, himself included.

“I played in the very first one,” he said, and showed off an original 1973 program.

He was 9 years old and a center for the Sacred Heart Squirts. In the 1970s and 1980s, the tournament was where youth spent their February vacation, with or without their parents.

“My mom dropped me off at 8 in the morning and picked me up on the way home at night,” Berube said. “It was fantastic.”

Mike Mathieu, 48, of Auburn also played when he was young, for St. Peter’s. Today, he is a Gladiator Bantam Black Team parent and coach. His son, Christian, 13, plays forward.

The tournament provides camaraderie for players, parents and grandparents, and is good for the community, Mathieu said.

“The same people come back,” he said.

On Monday, he watched his son’s Bantam championship game against the Portland Casco Bay Oilers. This championship was another close game. During the second period and most of the third, the game was 2-2.

“It’s intense,” said Lynette Larkin-Sylva, who cheered with the Portland Casco Bay fans.

So was Ron Smalley of Portland.

“The people of Lewiston-Auburn take their hockey very seriously,” he said. “So we have to bring our A game and remain calm.”

With 15 second left in the game, Casco Bay scored and won the championship.

Mathieu was disappointed, but quickly recovered.

“Nice job!” he yelled as the players shook hands. “This was an unbelievable game.”

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Madoxx Taylor, 13, of Turner reacts Monday after his Gladiator Black teammate scored a goal to put the team up 2-1 during the 46th annual Lions Tournament Bantam championship game at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn. Assistant coach Jason Landry of Lewiston is at right. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Rocco Landry, 13, skates the puck up the ice for Gladiator Black during the 46th annual Lions Tournament Bantam championship game at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn on Monday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Jada Olson, 14, of Poland watches the game as her line waits to go out on the ice during the 46th annual Lions Tournament Bantam championship game at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn on Monday. Olson plays for Gladiator Black. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Casco bay Oilers assistant coach Tom Lafferty of Scarborough reacts after his team scored with 15 seconds left in the game to go up 3-2 against Gladiator Black during the 46th annual Lions Tournament Bantam championship game at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn on Monday. The Oilers won the game. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Denis Berube, president of Maine Gladiators Youth Hockey which hosts the Lions Tournament, holds an original Lions Tournament program from 1973, the first year of the tournament. In 1973 Berube, then 9, played for the Sacred Heart Squirts. This year’s tournament was held Feb. 16-19 at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn. (Bonnie Washuk/Sun Journal)  

Gladiator Black head coach Mike Begin talks with his team during a third period timeout on Monday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Matt Begin of Auburn skates to the bench during the 46th annual Lions Tournament Bantam championship game at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn on Monday. Begin plays for Gladiator Black. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

Dolan Pols, 13, of Brunswick, reacts after his Casco Bay Oilers team tied the game against Gladiator Black during the 46th annual Lions Tournament Bantam championship game at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn on Monday. Pols and his teammates won the game 3-2. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

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