For the first time since the Lewiston Maineiacs folded after the 2010-11 season, Lewiston-Auburn will once again have a hockey team to call its own.
At a news conference Monday at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, rink owner Jim Cain and North American 3 Eastern Hockey League commissioner Wayne Sheehan announced the relocation of the New Hampshire Fighting Spirit to Lewiston beginning next season. The team will be known as the L-A Fighting Spirit.
“This is really important to us, both for purposes of operating this building financially and otherwise,” Cain said. “We found a solid tenant and a very solid league.”
The announcement comes a few months after the Maine Timberwolves of the then-Northern States Hockey League, folded before playing a single game at the Colisee. The NSHL merged with the North American Hockey League this year, forming the 10-team NA3EHL.
With a five-year agreement in place, the Fighting Spirit are happy to finally have a place to call home.
“It’s wonderful for us to have a venue where we feel the product we put on the ice can be enjoyed and celebrated by a community,” owner and coach Rod Simmons said. “It’s been a long time coming for us. We’ve moved around the last couple years after losing our arena. We’ve always found success on the road, I should say, but we seem to have been able to find a home and hope we can bring a level the community enjoys and looks forward to.”
Simmons started the Fighting Spirit program in 2012 and played in the NSHL, when the team called Lake George, N.Y., home. It has since moved twice, relocating to Waterville Valley, N.H., for the 2013-14 season and to Laconia, N.H., this season. The Laconia rink holds 700 people. The Colisee seats 3,677.
“I’m thrilled to have a team placed in this community for the 2015-16 season,” Sheehan said. “Jim (Cain) and I have had a number of conversations over the last few months to bring a quality program here.”
With Lewiston-Auburn hungry for junior hockey, fans won’t have to wait until next season to see their new team. The Fighting Spirit will host a two-game series against the Lockport Express at the Colisee in February. The dates and times of those games are yet to be determined.
The Colisee will also host this season’s NA3EHL championship, a best-of-three series.
“We were looking for an opportunity to be somewhere we thought fit our program,” Simmons said. “As we looked around for that, when there was a team here that left, we wanted to step up so we contacted Jim, took a look around. We feel this area is good, not just for our program now, but the possibility of expansion. As we looked around at the community, at the history, we thought it would be a good fit for our program at this point and time. We didn’t want go to a situation where we were limited on ice, where we were limited on growth and we think this fits well with a multiple-year situation.”
Simmons brings 26 years of coaching experience with him. He has coached junior hockey in Canada with South Grenville and Kemptville, and in the United States with National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y. He’s also been an assistant coach at the college level at both the State University of New York at Potsdam and SUNY-Canton.
Simmons said approximately 45 players have gone on to play college hockey during his time with the Fighting Spirit.
Playing in New York or New Hampshire hasn’t mattered much for the Fighting Spirit. They’ve found success wherever they’ve landed.
The team finished 68-8-3-3 in its first two seasons (both in the NSHL), winning the regular season title both years. The Fighting Spirit are 19-3 this season and sit in first place in the Eastern Division.
The league is seeking certification by USA Hockey for the 2015-16 season. The NA3EHL currently operates independently of USA Hockey, though it follows the same rules and regulations outside of the number of import players it allows. The vote for certification is Jan. 15. If approved, the Fighting Spirit would only be allowed four import players, meaning those born outside the United States. The Fighting Spirit currently have 15 import players.
The current 21-man roster includes one Maine native, Grant Lundquist of Fort Fairfield, who is in his final year of junior eligibility. Players can play junior hockey through their 20th birthday. Everyone on the current roster is between the ages of 18 and 20. Simmons said he does not anticipate recruiting high school athletes.
“If you look us up you won’t see a lot of high school guys in our program,” Simmons said. “Our practice times sometimes are not set up for that. I’m not saying down the road if there’s an expansion that that won’t become more available. Right out of the gate I think our team will stay 18-20 and I want to work with high school coaches to develop the local guys. I don’t want to deplete the high school programs.”
For the local kids, the new junior hockey league provides an opportunity to continue their careers that allows them to stay close to home.
“It’s good for the area,” Edward Little assistant coach Aaron Rand said. “It’s hockey-driven. Everybody’s pretty excited to have someone occupy that rink over there. It’s something to look forward to. When they get a little older after their senior year they have something to hopefully transition to.”
However, Rand echoes the rest of the L-A area when it comes to cautious optimism.
“We’ve seen teams come and go so it’s kind of unpredictable,” Rand said. “It’s definitely something to look forward to, but I think they’re going to have a wait-and-see attitude toward it. If they bring a good brand of hockey, fans will definitely go.”