AUBURN — More than 1,000 people filled the twin rinks of the Norway Savings Bank Arena on Saturday to kick off the 42nd annual Lions Tournament.
By Thursday, when the event ends, an estimated 500 children on 24 hockey teams will have taken the ice. And an estimated 2,000 people will have visited the just-opened arena.
“It’s great,” organizer Greg Gilbert said, watching people walk through the long, windowed area that connects rink one, known as “Garden,” and rink two, nicknamed “Forum.”
“We could not have this big a tournament with one sheet of ice,” Gilbert said.
An estimated 80 games will be played during these six days, often using both rinks at once. On Saturday afternoon, little kids who were barely able to skate followed pucks at the Garden while high-schoolers battled at the Forum.
People from across southern and midcoast Maine watched the games.
“This place is beautiful,” said Bill Heywood of Raymond as he watched his son skate alongside a visiting team from Quebec. ”It’s state-of-the-art.”
An assistant coach with the Maine Hockey Academy, Heywood praised Auburn for helping get the arena built. Nothing else in Maine compares, he said. No other arena in Maine has two rinks.
Portland-area tournaments often combine ice rinks from North Yarmouth Academy and the University of Southern Maine to meet the demand for playing time, Heywood said.
As crowds build here, it will be a showcase for young Maine hockey talent, he said.
Todd Eno of Brunswick sat in the Forum and watched his son play, guessing that he’ll soon be making the 40-minute trip from his home to Auburn on a regular basis. Ice time in Brunswick, where the only rink is at Bowdoin College, is becoming tougher to purchase, he said. The Auburn arena is meeting a regional demand, he said.
Despite the new venue and its comforts, Gilbert insisted that the decades-old tournament will maintain the best parts of its character — sportsmanship, friendliness and community — that have kept it popular since 1972.
He knows. In 1972, Gilbert was a 12-year-old playing in the tournament. Almost every year since, he has played, coached or volunteered for the event, typically held during schools’ February vacation.
He coached his son, Nick, until he grew too old. He’s now 19 and in his second year of college.
Gilbert continues because he still enjoys seeing the kids and catching the games when he can.
“It’s competitive, but it’s fun,” he said.
And the new comforts are appreciated. Last year, he wore five layers of clothing and still froze, he said
Until last year, it was always held at the Lewiston arena, whether it was called the Central Maine Youth Center or the Colisee. In 2013, the tournament was held elsewhere for the first time, at the Auburn-owned Ingersoll arena and the Bates College arena in Lewiston.
Gilbert expects the tournament to stay at the new arena for years to come.
“It keeps everybody in one place,” he said. “There’s no plan to move.”