LEWISTON — Placing one blade and then the other carefully on the ice, Jeromey Rancourt tested his balance on the thin slivers of metal between him and the wet, glistening surface.
Down he went.
His father, Dave, picked him up.
He moved forward — 5 feet this time.
Down he went again.
Top Dog clinic instructor Jeff Guay looked at Dave. The conversation went like this:
“Did you get them sharpened?”
Dave chuckled. “Yup. He’s never skated before.”
Guay paused. “Oh … OK.”
Following the session, Jeromey looked at his father.
“Yeah, I think I’m going to quit. I don’t want to do this.”
Dave was calm but stern.
“That’s not how we do things,” he said to his son. “You’re going to finish these eight weeks, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to play. But you’ve got to finish these eight weeks.”
“I should have just let him quit,” Jeromey’s mother, Dawn, said. “At the end of the eight weeks, he was sold, and there was no turning back.”
Twelve years later, Jeromey is one of the top high school hockey players in Maine. He was a co-captain this season at Lewiston High School as the Blue Devils earned a second consecutive Class A state crown. He tied for the team lead in points in the regular season, and scored a goal in the state final that put an exclamation point on the team’s victory.
He celebrated — perhaps a bit too vociferously. He looked to the rafters, much as he had during the reverent silence as a schoolmate sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
There were more than 3,700 people in the building that night, but more important to Jeromey was the one person who wasn’t.
“My first hockey game for mites, my dad passed away,” Jeromey said. “He never got to watch me play real, organized hockey. That kind of sparked my will to want to do the best I can, kind of make him proud in the process. I want to go as far as I can with hockey, just to make him proud. That’s what hockey is to me; that’s what makes me feel like I am still in connection with him.”
David Jerome Rancourt, a just-retired Army Reservist with the 619th Transportation Company who had completed two tours in Iraq and had earned a bronze star, and a 10-year veteran of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department, died less than two years after introducing his son to the game.
He was 40.
Nov. 4, 2006
There was plenty of daylight left in the midafternoon hours that Saturday, but inside Central Maine Medical Center, the artificial lights did nothing to conjure positivity.
“She said, ‘He’s not coming back.’
“Basically, there was no way to sugarcoat it,” Jeromey remembered. “She walked in and said, ‘Dad’s been in an accident; he won’t be coming home.’ And I asked then, ‘So, he died?’
“She said, ‘Yeah.’
“And I said, ‘OK.’
“I started crying, and then I looked at her and said, ‘How come you’re not crying?’ She just said, ‘I can’t.’ That’s how it was.”
“He looked at me, and I said, ‘It’s OK to cry.’ And he did,” Dawn said. “He absolutely did. My biggest regret, though, is that he never saw me cry. I did cry, but I didn’t let him see it, because I felt I needed to be strong for him.”
That scene played out in a small, quiet room, not far from the nearby chaos of the hospital’s trauma center, and even closer to the room where Dave’s lifeless body lay waiting to be hugged one last time.
There was plenty of life left in Dave’s body earlier that morning. A member of the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department’s dive team, Dave had volunteered to lead a second-day dive in the Androscoggin River.
“On Friday, we got a call from Auburn PD that they were doing a burglary investigation, and a safe had apparently been stolen,” Chief Deputy William Gagne recalled. Gagne was a sergeant at the time, and a member of the dive team in a support role.
“Information they got was that (the safe) was tossed over the (Veterans’ Bridge) and into the river.
“We went out Friday afternoon, and there was myself, Dave and another guy on the boat, and Dave didn’t dive that day,” Gagne continued. “We weren’t having much success. Once you start stirring up the bottom a little bit, you can’t see anything. So it was decided that they’d go back Saturday with more staff.”
Dave, of course, was ready to go.
“I remember talking to Dave and asking him, ‘Do you need me tomorrow?'” Gagne said. “And he said, ‘No, we’ve got plenty of people.’ He listed off who was going.”
Saturday, Jeromey was going to share one of what he thought would be many firsts with his father: He was going to play in his first competitive hockey game as a Mite.
“(Dave) gave him a kiss goodbye, said, ‘I’ll be back for your game,'” Dawn said.
“And he wasn’t,” Jeromey interjected in a recent interview, finishing his mother’s thought as he hung his head.
Members of the team suited up, and one by one dropped off the side of the boat and into the chilly water.
“One diver went out, and then Dave went out, and he gave the sign he was OK, and submerged,” Gagne said. “He came up like, a minute later, gave the distress signal. He swam part of the way back to the boat, and then went unconscious.”
Meanwhile, “I’m working in my basement, I get a call,” Gagne said. “‘Hey, I’m not sure what’s going on, but one of the divers is having some kind of medical emergency. We don’t know who it is; United (Ambulance) is en route.’
“I threw on one of my BDU uniforms and screamed off. I went to the boat launch on North River Road, and when we came off of Center Street — I almost think we went through the Wendy’s parking lot to get there — we showed up at the boat launch … and our boat was just coming in.”
Dave was motionless as paramedics worked to bring him back to life. They worked hard.
“Of course, your training kicks in, so, here’s your buddy that they’re working on, and United worked on him there for quite a while,” Gagne said. “I was told they gave him enough to start a horse’s heart. We started all the notifications, still not knowing, you know, we were all hoping for the best.”
Immediately, Gagne tried to get a hold of Dawn — and Jeromey.
“We were at a track meet for Dave’s godson, and I didn’t bring my cellphone,” Dawn recalled. She paused, drew in a deep breath and continued. “Didn’t think I’d need it.
“We pulled into the driveway, and there was a sheriff’s cruiser sitting in the driveway. And I got out of the car, and the deputy got out of the car and he said, ‘Dave’s been in an accident.’
“I kind of walked by him and went toward the house to get my cellphone, and as I’m walking by, I was like, ‘Is he OK?’”
And then it hit her.
“Before he could answer me, I said, ‘Obviously he’s not, or you wouldn’t be here.’
“On the way to the hospital, I tried calling (Gagne), I tried calling Rielly Bryant, I tried calling Capt. (Raymond) LaFrance, and not one of them would answer their phones. So I knew it wasn’t good.”
When she got to the hospital lot, she saw seven Lewiston police cruisers parked haphazardly near the emergency entrance.
“It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that meant,” Dawn said.
Her mind raced. She thought about Jeromey, who was in another car with his aunt, Dave’s sister, still thinking he was going to play hockey that night.
And she thought of her unborn child, Brock, and how he would have to grow up not ever knowing his father.
She raced into the hospital. Jeromey stayed with his aunt.
“I walked through the doors, and I met one of the nurses whose son had played hockey with Jeromey the year before,” Dawn said. “I looked at her, and I said, ‘Tell me the truth.’ She shook her head and said, ‘He’s gone.’”
Dawn was stunned. Shock set in almost immediately. Her husband, who had survived two tours in Iraq and had just two weeks earlier officially retired from the U.S. Army Reserve, was gone.
“I went out back, went and saw him,” Dawn said. “The motto I live by is, ‘You don’t have to agree with it, you just have to accept it.’ I didn’t agree with it. I still don’t agree with it, and I still don’t think I’ve accepted it. But I’m trying.”
She immediately thought of Jeromey, her 7-year-old pride and joy — her mini-Dave.
“I realized I had to make a notification,” Dawn, herself a former police officer, said. “I’d made more death notifications than I can count, and they’re the hardest things to ever to do to anybody, to give that news to anybody. And I realized I had to make one to a 7-year-old. And not just any 7-year-old, my 7-year-old.”
Jeromey didn’t play hockey that night — though his mother gave him the option to do so if he’d wanted.
“I would have taken him,” Dawn said. “Consistency was important for him.”
Adjusting was understandably difficult for Jeromey in the immediate aftermath of Dave’s death.
“He used to pick me up from school every day, and we used to play this game,” Jeromey recalled. “He had his own car, from the sheriff’s office, you could take them home. And we used to play a game, every car that would come by, we’d guess the speed. I’d say, ’27,’ he’d say, ’28.’ I was either one or two off every time, and he was, too. I don’t know if he was letting me win, but I was pretty good at it, too. Sometimes we’d come home, and we’d play knee hockey for a little bit, or something.
“I had come home from school that next day, and I ran upstairs, and I remember yelling, ‘Hey, Dad, guess what I did today?’ And it hit me as soon as I hit the landing that, ‘Oh, wait …’ I remembered, but that’s still kind of how it was every day for a little while.”
Dave’s co-workers helped out the best they could.
“It is tough to go through, and he and his dad were close,” Gagne said. “If Dawn was at work, Dave had Jeromey. All of a sudden, Dave’s not there. You can try to fit in and be a role model. And he’s very well-mannered, not in trouble. He’s always been very respectful; he’ll always come up and talk to us.”
One week later, Jeromey made his Mites debut.
He’s been on the ice every moment possible ever since.
Testing the ice
Jeromey is among the best skaters in Maine now, but he wasn’t always so great on his feet. Not on skates, anyway.
“He had played two years of basketball for (the Recreation Department), and he came home with a flier. ‘Hey, can I try this?’ Dave and I looked at each other and then him, and said, ‘Can you even skate?’”
No, he couldn’t.
But he tried.
“He didn’t want a bucket, didn’t want a walker-thing,” Dawn said.
After some prodding, Jeromey, true to form, wasn’t satisfied with one session per week, or with one clinic.
“In between those sessions, Dave would go pick up Jeromey,” Dawn remembered. “On Wednesdays, there was public skate, and he’d take Jeromey to public skate and help him work on his skating. At the end of those eight weeks, that’s how he got better. He was jumping over sticks and hockey stopping. But his dad would take him, a couple times a week to Augusta to skate.”
“I went to Kents Hill and did my Top Dog clinics, but most of the time it was just me and my dad at public skates,” Jeromey said. “We used to go all the time. That’s kind of where it started.”
And it was just getting started.
Jeromey played Mites and one year of Squirts with the Jr. Maineiacs program out of Lewiston before following some of his best friends to the Portland Junior Pirates program, where he stayed until he reached high school. Then, he started playing for the Maine Moose junior program out of the Camden National Ice Vault in Hallowell — the same rink where he’d learned to skate all those years ago with his father.
“That’s kind of where it started, and it’s kind of nice I get to finally finish out my Midgets playing there,” Jeromey said. “It’s full circle to me.”
While his father more than laid the foundations for Jeromey to be successful in hockey, it was Jeromey who put in the time and effort — and not just in hockey.
“I made sure that when hockey was done, it was done,” Dawn said. “I wanted him to miss being on the ice.”
Jeromey played baseball each spring, sprinkled in summer hockey, and then slung golf clubs over his shoulders in the fall.
And those sports were all well and good for a while.
But they weren’t hockey.
“He wanted to do full-season team with the Moose,” Dawn said, “and with the practice rules for the high school, trying to do that with golf was going to be impossible, so I let him stop golf. In the spring of his junior year, I finally said, ‘OK, you can stop baseball, too.’ He needed a break from everything. He needed to relax.”
By the end of his junior season of high school hockey, the ability to relax was welcome. He had, after all, achieved one of his ultimate goals — as a junior, he helped lead the team to a Class A state championship, breaking the Blue Devils’ near-record 14-year title drought. It was a dream he’d had for a long time, but one that three years earlier seemed nearly unattainable.
Jeromey’s class of freshmen at Lewiston High School was highly touted, and the depth of talent was among the largest in some years at the school known for hockey excellence. Never mind making the team as a freshman among returning seniors and juniors, Rancourt had to also beat out many others in his own class.
He slotted in as a fourth-line player and junior varsity regular. But he was on the team.
“I was part of the program,” he said. “That was important to me.”
Far more important, it turns out, than being able to continue wearing a very special number.
When Jeromey’s father died, the Sheriff’s Department essentially retired his call number and license plate — 15 and 115, respectively. From that day, Jeromey wore No. 15 on his jersey, to honor his father.
He continues to wear that number on his Maine Moose jersey, but his high school number for the past four years was 11.
“Freshman year, I know how the system works, varsity players go first, seniors get first choice of jerseys,” Jeromey said. “Tryouts were over and I’d made the program. There was a kid who got called in before me, a classmate, Jean-Luc, and he’d worn 15 growing up, just like I did. I asked him, ‘Are you taking 15?’ And he said yes. I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ I didn’t have a problem with that. He got the first pick by the coaching staff, and he earned his spot just like I did, so he deserved to have it.”
The coaching staff never knew.
“Never knew it, he never said a thing about it,” head coach Jamie Belleau said. “Historically, once you came in, you got a number, and that was your number. Not until this year did I realize the significance of the number 15 to him, and he’s not even the one who told me. It’s not something he ever shared.”
Instead, Jeromey improvised, like he’s always done.
“I chose 11,” Rancourt said. “I wore 11 when I was younger, when my dad was able to watch me. And his license plate with the Sheriff’s Department was 1-1-5. So on my stick, I have 1-1-5 underneath, CC 14 for Casey (Cloutier, a former St. Dom’s and Maine Moose player killed in a car accident in 2015). I wear 11 at Lewiston for the 1-1, and then I wear 15 with the Moose for the 1-5. It evens it out.”
He also set a few goals that season, including a pair of long-term wishes.
“He told me his freshman year, ‘I’d really like to be a captain by my senior year,’” Dawn said.
“And I wanted to win a state championship,” Jeromey added.
He and his teammates did both — in his junior year.
Jeromey isn’t the first junior to have worn a ‘C’ on his sweater, and he won’t be the last. But it takes a special kind of player to both earn it and then maintain the requisite respect among his teammates.
“I’ve looked up to a few guys on the way through,” Rancourt said. “Two guys who wore the ‘C’ as juniors ahead of me, Kyle Lemelin and Kyle Morin, and Joe (Bisson) this year. It’s a lot of responsibility going into your junior year, being a captain, and then into senior year, hoping to still have those guys’ trust. I hope that’s the way I was for this year’s group, someone they could rely on and look up to for a second year.”
It helps, also, that Jeromey is among the best players in Maine.
“The person who wears the ‘C’ on his shirt in our program, many times they’re elite players, but not always,” Belleau said. “From a coaching standpoint, you’re looking at a player who the kids respect, kids look up to, and we have a lot of leaders on our team. But the past couple of years, he’s been one of the best. That’s not only a testament to his skill and consistent performance on the ice. Being a leader is about more than putting points on the board. It’s about making the right decisions, it’s about doing the right things, it’s about having good character and being someone who’s a solid representative of our program, and our school, and our community.”
Not that Belleau needed any more evidence of Jeromey’s ability to lead, but last summer, he got it anyway. In spades.
Early in the summer, during workouts, he didn’t like the way one of the underclassmen was being treated while Belleau was away. And he said so.
“He said, ‘We’re a family here, and that just can’t happen,'” Belleau remembered. “That just gives you a flavor of the kind of kid he is.”
“Family” isn’t just another word for Jeromey, nor for the Blue Devils. The team lives by that concept.
“Before we leave the locker rooms before practices and games, we say, ‘Family!’ Belleau said. “At first, some of the guys didn’t really take it seriously, but now, you see a lot of the kids talking now that, ‘This is our family.’ As a coach, you try to instill these things in their minds so that when push comes to shove, you’re hoping that triggers a thought of, ‘This guy next to me is going to war with me, and I’ve got to have his back, and he’ll have mine.’ Jeromey takes that as seriously as anyone else on this team, like he takes his own family seriously.”
“(‘Family’) means everything,” Jeromey said. “It means this hockey team, it means the community as a whole. Some days, it’s louder than others, but you want it as loud as possible every time you say it. That’s how you know you’re true family.”
Back at home
Jeromey loves his hockey family.
They, and many others, helped shape his life at the rink, and to some degree, away from it.
“The friends I’ve made through hockey, I won’t forget any of them, and I know they won’t forget me,” he said.
At home, Dawn, his brother, Brock, and, yes, Dave, have been the rocks on which his foundation is built.
From the moment he knew his father was never coming back, Jeromey and his mother shared an unbreakable bond.
Some people pushed her to get counseling for Jeromey. She pushed back. Having been in law enforcement herself, she knew what she was looking for, and Jeromey never showed signs of being withdrawn, violent or distant.
“He was in school Monday,” Dawn said. “People were like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘That’s where he needs to be, in school, with his friends.’ He left school early that day, he was having a tough time, and I agreed. But that’s where he needed to be.”
With the funeral arrangements, Jeromey missed some school that week. But as soon as time allowed, he was back at his desk. And back on the rink. It was tough, Dawn agreed, but it was best for him.
“Whether I let him go to school or not, he was robbed,” Dawn said. “There’s no denying that. Hockey was his thing. The very next weekend, he was at his first hockey game with his teammates. And his teammates were fabulous. They all went to the funeral and the cemetery, and they were all there for him. It was amazing. They were great to him. There were a couple of kids who said some things, not realizing, but he was always great with them. He always understood.
“I did try really hard not to ever make him feel like, ‘You’re the man of the house now,’” Dawn added. “I know people said that to him, and I was mad at people for saying that to him, because that’s not fair. He’s a 7-year-old little boy, and that’s what he should be.’”
Less than nine months after Dave’s death, Jeromey was also a big brother, to Brock.
“I help Brock as much as I can,” Jeromey said. “I don’t want to push it too far. I don’t know what he’s capable of handling right now, but any time he has questions, I answer them. Sometimes, when he’s having a rough day, I go talk to him. I’ll sit on his bed and just walk him through situations. I tell him what me and my dad did when I was in this situation, how he can go about it.
“When I was 7, I had to grow up. I didn’t have the childhood he has. He’s 9, he’s playing with action figures … he’s a kid, I respect that. At that age, I was focused. I was determined. I had to take a step up. Reality hit me pretty quick.”
The brothers share many of the same qualities and character traits. And, of course, Brock plays hockey, also wearing “15” on his jersey.
“(Brock) played hockey, because that’s what his big brother does,” Dawn said. “He didn’t want to disappoint him. That’s a really not-good reason to play hockey. I watch him skate … and it’s Jeromey. But he’s the one that plays for the fun. And I am perfectly OK with that, too.”
Jeromey tries to keep his father’s memory alive in his brother’s mind, as well.
“He was a great guy; I wish (Brock) could have met him,” Jeromey said. “That’s the one thing I wish, you know? If I could have a day with him, I’d give it up and give it to Brock, for sure.”
Jeromey, meanwhile, escaped with hockey.
“I knew when he was having a bad day at school, because he’d have the net out, and he’d be shooting pucks,” Dawn said. “He’d be out in the driveway, and it would just be puck after puck after puck. Thank God he didn’t break any windows.”
And, she said, he still leans on her when he needs to talk to someone.
“The one time I asked him about counseling, he made a very valid argument,” Dawn said. “He said, ‘Why am I going to talk to someone about my dad, who they’ve never met, just for them to tell me it’s OK to feel this way. I know it’s OK to feel this way.’
“And I left it at that, on one condition: that he talk to me about it. And for the most part, he has.”
As he’s grown, Dawn admitted that sometimes it’s a bit tougher to get Jeromey to open up as often as he used to.
“But as long as he’s shooting pucks,” Dawn said, “I know he’s OK. That’s what he does.”
With a second state title as a co-captain of the Lewiston High School team in his back pocket, Jeromey has checked off another box on his ever-evolving list of goals and dreams.
“Every goal he sets, he pushes himself for it,” Dawn said. “Everything he does makes me proud. He thinks before he does something. I don’t know if he thinks about me, or if he thinks about his dad, and I’m OK either way. I told him at some point, before you do something, take a step back, take an extra second and think, ‘Would my parents be proud of this decision?’ And if the answer is no, or you’re not sure, you probably don’t want to do it. He hasn’t let me down.”
He wouldn’t say whether earning the Travis Roy Award — the most prestigious high school hockey award in Maine — is also on that list. He has as good a chance as any of the other three finalists to achieve that honor.
But ultimately, it won’t matter.
Jeromey doesn’t let his goals — achieved or otherwise — define him.
That’s what his family is for.
Belleau believes Jeromey has what it takes to continue his hockey career beyond high school.
“The average freshman now, even at Division III schools, is 20 or 21 years old, so he has a couple of years to develop,” Belleau said, “and he has a couple years he’ll have to work hard. It’s his raw skills and his work ethic combined … you can’t say Jeromey’s not going to be able to do it, because he’s going to work to try and get there. He’s proven that already.”
“I just want to play as far as I can,” Jeromey said. “Whatever that may be. Playing junior hockey, if that’s where I max out, that’s where I max out. I’d love to play college hockey, I’d love to play Division I. Right now, I want to push for that. That’d be the ultimate goal, for now. Maybe professionally, eventually. But we’ll see. I obviously have backup plans for that, too, with school, but you have to set little goals, one at a time. Winning a state championship was one. Winning two was one. Winning a national championship (with the Moose) was one, I want to win another one. Just figuring out where I want to go next year, and setting me up for the best opportunity to play at the highest level I possibly can.”
And no matter at what level of hockey Jeromey “maxes out,” he’ll never be far from a rink, a stick and puck, or a net.
“It’s been my escape from everything,” he said. “The hard times I’ve dealt with, if I’m having a bad day … hockey, it’s been my way out. Being able to relax and let everything go. Nothing matters for however long I’m on the ice. That’s why I take it so seriously. It’s been my relief.”