Scarborough teams find home away from home in Lewiston

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LEWISTON — Most hockey players wouldn’t consider a flashlight or an extra phone battery standard issue equipment, nor would most pack those items on their way to practices and games.

But this year’s Scarborough High School hockey players are far from typical.

“Some of the players even have those headlamps you clip to your hats, and they’ll clip them on to read,” Scarborough boys’ hockey captain Kyle Jacques said. “And we always make sure our phones are charged for the light, so we can do homework.”

The Red Storm — both the girls’ and boys’ teams — were left in an awkward situation during the last offseason.

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When the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League left southern Maine after last season, their practice rink, MHG Ice Centre in Saco, let its ice thaw, as well.

In hockey, home is where the ice is, and with no ice in Saco, the programs were left scrambling.

“It was either go south, or go north,” Scarborough Athletic Director Michael LeGage said.

The Red Storm looked nearby and to the South — Biddeford Ice Arena, Troubh Ice Arena in Portland and University of New England in Biddeford among them — but couldn’t find any consistent, guaranteed ice time.

So LeGage chose the latter direction, and found a haven at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

“The Colisee was able to offer ice to our whole program,” LeGage said. “There was nobody else that had that kind of ice. There were many of the southern Maine rinks that couldn’t offer us any ice.”

“It was a fairly easy fit,” Colisee General Manager Mike Cain said. “We used to have two high school programs here. We had St. Dom’s, as well as Lewiston, for 40 years.”

Buckle up

While the teams had each played a handful of games at the Colisee — a 45-minute bus ride north from Scarborough High School — and in neighboring Auburn at the Norway Savings Bank Arena, neither team was used to the daily grind of traveling one-and-a-half hours around a full practice.

“We’re definitely tired sometimes, depending on what kind of day we’ve had,” Scarborough boys captain Eric Murray said. “But we’ve learned to deal with it. Some of us will take naps on the bus on the way to practice, or to games. Some will sleep on the way home.”

“I definitely am both,” Jacques said. “It depends on my homework situation. Each night I try to sleep before practice, so I have energy to play and compete, and then do homework on the way home.”

Administrators admit the travel was a concern, but they had little choice.

“Do any of us want to have to travel 45 minutes every day? Of course not,” LeGage said. “It’s not ideal for anyone. But it was, I think, the best option for the whole program.”

Bussing schedules prevented the Red Storm teams from taking any early practice times, so most of the time, the teams slot in at 7:30 and 8:30 p.m.

Some nights the players might not get home until after 11 p.m.

“It takes its toll,” boys’ coach Norm Gagne said. “They wear down as the week goes on. So, by the end of the week, we’re out of gas.

“If we would have had the original times that they gave us, at 4 and 5:10 every day, I don’t think we would have any problems.”

Still, the players said, it’s an adjustment they’ve made willingly, and they’ve grown from it.

“The hardest part was adjusting our schedules,” Murray said. “Everybody just had to adjust their afternoons. It’s not too hard, it’s just different.”

“We’ve handled it pretty well,” Jacques added. “To do it every day now, it’s like a habit.”

Gagne joked that he might have to get his bus driver’s license so he can bus the players himself. It would be fitting, because there have been practices where he’s been the only coach to work with all 24 players on the roster because his assistant coaches couldn’t make the commute.

“If I had to do it all over again, with what I know now, I would plan better. I would probably go through the whole schedule, games and everything, and then pinpoint days off during the week where we could do film and weight room at the high school,” Gagne said. “We would probably save a lot of energy by doing that, and maybe less kids getting sick.”

“I think at the beginning of the season, because there was a lot of excitement, it was easier,” girls’ coach Caitlin D’Amour said. “Now that it’s colder out, it gets dark out earlier, those 8:30 practices where we’re not getting home till about 10:30 or 11 is rough on the girls. But they power through it. And, honestly, there’s not enough rinks in the state of Maine, so you kind of have to take what you can get, whether that’s 5:30 a.m. or 8:30 at night.

“You just can’t use it as an excuse. That’s the way I look at it. You push through it, you do what you got to do.”

Dean Berry, whose son, Callaghan, is a sophomore on the boys’ team, said everyone in the program — parents included — has been looking for the “silver lining” to calling the Colisee home, despite the late nights and longer bus rides. Berry said the extra time on the bus has allowed his son — playing his first year of varsity hockey — to bond more with the veterans on the team.

Murray agreed.

“It’s made us tougher as a team,” he said, “and it’s challenged us to come together as a team and build chemistry.”

D’Amour said her team has done the same, allowing the players to grow closer as friends and not just teammates. That means sharing snacks and drinks, as well as stories, and that camaraderie then spills into the locker room, which they don’t have to share with another team anymore.

A new home

To help accommodate the Scarborough programs, the Colisee, along with its other high school tenant, Lewiston, offered to give the Red Storm what LeGage called “prime time” ice, which were the 4 and 5 p.m. slots. But that plan hit a snag when LeGage couldn’t secure a guaranteed bus or driver to bring the players up to the Colisee with a departure time of 2:30 p.m., when resources were being used to transport students home from school. And the school didn’t want to rely on players or their parents to make that afternoon commute.

“We bus our kids. It’s kind of a mandate, and it’s a good mandate,” Berry said. “This is only maybe a 15-minute longer bus drive than getting down to MHG. It’s really not that much longer, but it is longer.

“As far as the travel, not that big of a deal. The biggest thing was the times, the ice times, and they have to be later.”

While offering the Scarborough teams prime ice didn’t pan out, the Colisee has rolled out the red carpet in other ways, trying to make every accommodation possible to make the Red Storm feel welcome.

“Any customer of ours, we generally make them feel like they’re at home,” Cain said.

The Lewiston programs have helped with accommodations, giving up one of their evening slots to Scarborough in addition to what Lewiston Athletic Director Jason Fuller calls other, “minor” tweaks.

“It’s been great sharing the Colisee with Scarborough. We have a great relationship with their athletic department and coaching staff, and they are extremely easy to work with,” Fuller said. “It’s been fun having them around.”

Fuller said his teams have been lucky to call the Colisee home for years. The Scarborough teams have felt that way this year.

“They’ve just been really accommodating to us,” LeGage said. “They’ve given us locker rooms, they’ve given us storage spaces for our equipment here. It’s been, really, a great experience.”

Both Gagne and D’Amour said they are glad their teams get to experience having the Colisee as a home rink.

“I’ve always thought that the Colisee is the best venue for high school hockey in the state of Maine,” Gagne said. “You should want your kids to have that experience, and my kids have loved it.”

Gagne spent three seasons as the head coach at Lewiston in the mid-2000s. Assistant Mike Hefty coached alongside him with the Blue Devils, and assistant Jake Brown played for him. All three are plenty familiar with the Colisee.

“Lewiston, they’re a well-respected community in regards to hockey. They know what a rink is supposed to look like, they know how to take care of a rink,” D’Amour said. “So that has been a nice, positive thing for our program.”

Berry said he always considered the Colisee a “hockey palace” as a kid, growing up a hockey fan.

The Colisee has pulled out all the stops to make the Red Storm feel welcome, from making sure the locker room doors are adorned in Scarborough colors, to putting the Scarborough athletics logo on the Scarborough side of the rink.

LeGage said the Colisee was even willing to put the Scarborough championship banners in the rafters, if not for one issue: They are still stuck in the MHG rafters.

One minor glitch

The Colisee may look like the Red Storm’s home rink, but feeling like it on game nights has been another issue.

“It’s a great, great venue,” Gagne said. “I just wish we could fill the place.”

“The only thing that I think that they would like to see is being able to play in front of their friends. And that’s a big deal to most any high school player, is being able to have the student body there to cheer them on,” Gagne added. “I think that’s what our kids are missing right now.”

At a recent Scarborough home game against Lewiston, the “home” crowd was sparse, despite the matchup pitting last year’s Class A state finalists against each other.

“Today the joke was, they’re playing Lewiston, and the joke was, ‘Well who’s home?’ Because it’s their building, and it always has been for years and years,” Berry said before the Red Storm’s 7-1 loss.

“It’s been a grind on the kids,” Berry said. “They’re starting to wear at this point. You can tell they’re tired all the time.”

The players, on the other hand, insist they’re fine.

“Last year, yeah, it was nice having the fans there, and we definitely have some loyal fans,” Jacques said. “But I don’t think it affects us too much if they’re not all there all the time. We don’t focus too much on who’s there, we play for each other, and play for the team.”

Another consequence for the boys’ team is that Gagne is missing some potential freshmen players, who decided to play travel hockey closer to home rather than have to make the longer commute for varsity games. Gagne said those players could have helped his team this year.

“We haven’t played with our full team since the first game of the season. Now, we’ve also had injuries, too,” Gagne said. “It really piles up.”

The best option

Gagne said his complaints go only as far as the logistics of the new home rink, and the time and travel that are unavoidable.

But, he said, it’s still been the best option for his team, as well as D’Amour’s.

LeGage was unwilling to piecemeal ice times at various closer rinks, some which couldn’t solidify ice time until after the start of the season. He also didn’t want to go with his other looming option.

“At one point in time there was talk of, ‘Can we even have a program? Do we want to travel to Lewiston or Auburn or wherever we have to travel to, or do we not offer a program?’ Those were part of some of the discussions, unfortunately,” LeGage said. “We made the decision that of course we want to offer a program. How can we make it work? This is how we were able to make it work. It’s not ideal for anybody. And it’s nobody’s fault. It’s the circumstance. If MHG hadn’t closed, we’d still be there.”

The Colisee was the best — and maybe the only — option for Scarborough.

For one year, at least.

LeGage said he’s heard from some rinks in southern Maine that have offered him ice time for next season, for which he’s already started working on schedules. He said he doesn’t know where his teams will end up next year, but he has to start figuring that out sooner than later.

“I know that the Colisee is going to want to know our plan for next year,” LeGage said. “I couldn’t tell you today 100 percent where we’ll be.”

Happy home

As for this year, the Red Storm teams have been 100 percent happy with where they are, if not necessarily where it is.

“It took some getting used to. They opened up their doors to us when there wasn’t any availability. The fact that they were able to accommodate us says a lot,” D’Amour said. “You just get used to it. We go out there, we call it ‘our barn, our home,’ that we want to represent it well. I’d say it’s definitely become home.”

“We’ve been real happy here. It’s been a wonderful experience. We’re glad to be here,” LeGage said. “It has completely felt like home to us.”

Home, after all, is where the ice is.

wkramlich@sunjournal.com

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