Cheverus girls’ hockey coach Scott Rousseau leads practice at Troubh Ice Arena in November. (Portland Press Herald file photo)
When Scott Rousseau was asked to coach the Cheverus/Kennebunk girls’ ice hockey team two years ago, he didn’t want the job at first.
A 13-year coach for the Falmouth High boys until 2010, Rousseau wasn’t sure he wanted to coach a girls’ team.
“Then I went home, and my 7-year-old daughter Caroline had practice that night. She was all dressed in her equipment, standing there with her stick,” Rousseau recalled. “She goes, ‘I’m ready for practice, Dad!’”
At that moment, Rousseau had a realization: “I’m the worst dad in the world,” he said. “How on earth can I advocate for my daughter, who loves to play, and not coach the girls?”
Rousseau took the job and, on Wednesday night at the William B. Troubh Ice Arena, he will coach the Stags (18-1) in the South regional final.
Their opponent, Portland/Deering (14-5), also has a new coach in Tom Clifford, who coached the South Portland boys for an 11-year stretch until the early 2000s before taking over the Bulldogs’ program this season. His daughter, Kim, is a freshman on the squad.
Both Rousseau and Clifford inherited programs that have struggled in recent years, and both are committed to growing the sport of girls’ ice hockey in Maine.
“The high school league would not be what it is without those two working hand-in-hand,” said Scarborough Coach Caitlin Jordan. “They’re really trying to bring what boys’ high school hockey gets to the girls.”
This season, Rousseau took over as president of the Maine Girls High School Hockey Coaches Association while Clifford became the organization’s treasurer. Together, they developed the Becky Schaffer Award — the girls’ equivalent of the prestigious Travis Roy Award. The Schaffer award will be given annually to the top female senior player in the state. Next season, the goal is to hold a postseason banquet, like the boys do every year.
Falmouth Coach Rob Carrier, who has been with the Yachtsmen for nine years, said that having two former boys’ coaches get involved in the girls’ league “lends a lot of credibility to the sport.”
“As an organization, we just went along, not in a directionless way, but we didn’t really know exactly what the boys did and how they accomplished a lot of the things they did,” Carrier said. “Tom and Scott have put in place steps for us to be able to get to that type of level so, as coaches, we can recognize these players.”
Both Lewiston natives, Rousseau and Clifford’s paths have crossed more than a few times. Clifford played hockey for Lewiston High while Rousseau played for St. Dominic, which, coincidentally, share a rivalry similar to Portland and Cheverus. Clifford went on to play for the University of Southern Maine while Rousseau played for Army before they both returned to Maine and began their high school coaching careers in boys’ hockey.
“Tom and I are a lot more similar than not,” Rousseau said. “What brought us both to the girls’ game was our daughters and their passion for the sport.”
Rousseau’s daughter, Caroline, attended her first high school girls’ hockey game two years ago after she noticed a trend in her exposure to the sport.
“She was lamenting to me that we only watch the big boys play in the NHL,” Rousseau said. “She asked, ‘How come we never watch the big girls play?’”
So Rousseau brought Caroline — who attends St. Brigid School in Portland — to Cheverus’ last home game of the 2015-16 season. Afterward, the coach at the time, Kent Hulst, allowed her to come down to the locker room to meet all the players.
“She just loved every minute of it,” Rousseau said. “It was very inspiring for my daughter to see the big girls play because she knows, if she keeps playing, she can play ‘big girl hockey,’ too.
“So that’s kind of what hooked me.”
The Stags ended that season with an 11-0 loss to Falmouth in the regional semifinals. Though Cheverus wasn’t exactly competitive, the program was faring better than the Bulldogs, who missed the playoffs all together for the fourth straight year. Last season’s dismal 1-17 record extended Portland’s playoff drought to five years before the head coaching position opened up last spring.
“My daughter was going to be on the team, so I was going to be at the games anyway,” Clifford said. “So I threw my name in.”
Both Portland and Cheverus have recently enjoyed an influx of talent from the Casco Bay Youth Hockey league, on which both Rousseau and Clifford are board members. Rousseau said that of the 800 players in the league, 25 percent of them are girls.
“You’re seeing more younger girls playing, so I think the sport is only going to grow,” Clifford said. “We’re going to see teams throughout the state become more and more competitive.”
That has certainly been the case this season. For the first time since 2014, Scarborough and Falmouth won’t be playing each other in the Southern Maine championship. St. Dom’s — the two-time defending state champion — was also knocked out of the playoffs in Saturday’s North semifinals.
“I think it speaks to the growth of the game in general — the game is getting healthier, but it’s really not where it needs to be,” Rousseau said. “As coaches, we’re all in this together. We all understand our primary job is to continue to grow the girls’ game.”
Portland/Deering girls’ hockey coach Tom Clifford addresses the team during practice in November. (Portland Press Herald file photo)