Twin City Thunder to skate in USPHL at Norway Savings Bank Arena

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AUBURN — Maine’s newest junior hockey team will call itself the Twin City Thunder, and will play in the U.S. Premier Hockey League’s Premier North Division beginning in August 2018.

Team owners, investors and staff from the Norway Savings Bank Arena and the City of Auburn were on hand Friday morning at the rink to make the formal announcement. On Monday, the Auburn City Council approved the terms of a three-year lease between the team — owned and operated by Maine Hockey Management Group LLC — and the city for use of the rink. The team can extend the lease for another two years within the first year of operation, bringing the total potential commitment to five years.

“It’s very exciting to have this high level of hockey in Maine, and we’re looking forward to building it,” owner Ben Gray said. “The league is top-notch. If you go and look at what they’re doing, where kids are moving on, the level, it’s very high end, and that’s exactly what we were looking for.

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“I think everyone is Auburn is going to be very happy with the level of play and the caliber of players that are going to be coming into this market.”

The Twin City Thunder are owned by Gray, a St. Dominic Academy alumnus and owner of the Maine Moose hockey program out of Hallowell, and Dan Hodge, a former professional hockey player and coach whose family has been affiliated with high-level hockey in New England for decades. His father, Ken Hodge Sr., played many seasons for the Boston Bruins.

Gray, who grew up in Farmingdale, said he and Hodge have known each other for at least six years, and their relationship began, of course, through hockey.

They started the process within the last year.

“We were somewhere and kind of jokingly said we should pursue this together, this venture,” Gray said. “And, you know, it kind of came to fruition.”

Hodge, from Lynnfield, Massachusetts, said Gray recommended bringing the team to the Auburn-Lewiston area.

“Ben and I have been on this odyssey, I call it, for like nine months,” Hodge said. “We looked, and Ben was like, ‘You know, Auburn is a great spot. It’s a brand new arena, I know the community.’ So I put a lot of faith in him on that, but ever since I’ve been here and been around, it’s been awesome.”

Through Maine Hockey Management, the Thunder have already assembled a small staff, and are expecting to hit the ground running. Friday, the team unveiled its logo — a green, black and white viking with “Twin City” script above the image and a larger “Thunder” script below it.

“We wanted to incorporate the twin cities (Auburn and Lewiston), and name after name after name we kept throwing out, for some reason Thunder was the one that kept sticking with everyone,” Gray said. “So we finally said, ‘You know what, this is where we’re going to go with it.’”

The viking comes from Norse mythology.

“Thor is the god of thunder, so that’s how we came up with the mascot,” Gray said.

He said the colors were chosen because they aren’t already being used among Maine’s junior programs.

As for hockey personnel, Hodge said the search for a coach has been narrowed to two finalists, and that the coach could be announced as early as the end of this month.

Hodge also said the team has “a sizable list of scouts” throughout the country, as far west as California, and in Europe. The Thunder are already working to identify potential players.

The team is looking for players who will be good enough to eventually move on to big-time college programs, but talent isn’t their only criteria.

“We want the high-end players, but we also want the right players,” Hodge said. “So it’s kind of a mix. Just because you’re going to have a great player doesn’t mean he’s going to be a great teammate. We want to make sure we have a great player, a great teammate, and a great kid in the community. This whole thing is going to revolve around our kids being involved in the community and doing things out there — working, having jobs, going to schools, doing things like that that’s going to make people want to see them play.”

The Thunder will be a part of a league that has quickly become a junior hockey force over the past five years.

The USPHL started in 2013, and just this past year created the NCDC — the National Collegiate Development Conference — an arm of the league that provides a high-level, tuition-free option for top college-bound hockey prospects. The league counts current NHL standouts Jack Eichel (Buffalo), Charlie Coyle (Minnesota) and Jimmy Vesey (N.Y. Rangers) among its alumni, as well as many top scorers in Division I and Division III college hockey.

“We were going down a different couple avenues and trying to put all the pieces together to figure out what we wanted to do,” Gray said. “We met with several leagues and the USPHL made the most sense for where we want to head.”

While the Thunder will begin play in the Premier division — which itself has had hundreds of college hockey commitments — the organization already has an eye toward taking the program to the top level — the NCDC — for 2019-20.

Not that the Premier division is lacking in prospects in its own right. In the past five years, seven USPHL Premier players have skated for the University of Maine alone. Twelve more have played at New Hampshire, 12 more at Boston College and four at Boston University. More than 100 players have laced up their skates in the NCAA’s Hockey East conference alone, something that the league — and the Thunder — see getting only better as time goes on.

“Those are the players we’re looking for,” Hodge said.

The NCDC, meanwhile, is in its first season as an 11-team, Tier II league with a footprint from New Jersey in the South to Rochester, New York, in the West. The closest team to Auburn currently is in Manchester, New Hampshire (Junior Monarchs) in the NCDC. In the Premier North Division, in which the Thunder will play, the closest teams are clustered around Boston. The Junior Monarchs also have a Premier division team.

Overall, the Premier division has a footprint stretching from the upper Midwest to the Southeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states.

The USPHL, meanwhile, stretches to as far west as Oregon, and with the addition of the Thunder now has teams in 17 of 50 states, and 170 teams overall.

“We’re looking to expand our blueprint across the United States,” USPHL Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kayla Costa, who attended Friday’s announcement, said. “Maine is just a great addition for the program.”

While playing hockey at Merrimack College, Hodge faced teams from Maine, and he is well-aware of what the sport means to the state.

“Maine itself is just a hockey hotbed,” he said. “It’s kind of a hidden gem.”

Now that the team has formally announced its existence, the next step, officials said, is to populate the team with players and a staff — and to sell tickets.

AUBURN — Maine’s newest junior hockey team will call itself the Twin City Thunder,and will play in the U.S. Premier Hockey League beginning in August 2018.

Team owners, investors and staff from the Norway Savings Bank Arena and the City of Auburn were on hand Friday morning at the rink to make the formal announcement. On Monday, the Auburn City Council approved the terms of a three-year lease between the team — owned and operated by Maine Hockey Management Group LLC — and the city for use of the rink The team can extend the lease for another two years within the first year of operation, bringing the total potential commitment to five years.

The Twin City Thunder are owned by Ben Gray, a St. Dominic Academy alumnus and owner of the Maine Moose hockey program out of Hallowell, and Dan Hodge, a former professional hockey player and coach whose family has been affiliated with high-level hockey in New England for decades. His father, Ken Hodge Sr., played many seasons for the Boston Bruins.

Through Maine Hockey Management, the Thunder have already assembled a small staff, and are expecting to hit the ground running. Friday, the team unveiled its logo — a green, black and white viking with “Twin City” script above the image and a larger “Thunder” script below it.

The Thunder will be a part of a league that has quickly become a junior hockey force over the past five years.

The USPHL started in 2013, and just this past year created the NCDC — the National Collegiate Development Conference — an arm of the league that provides a high-level, tuition-free option for top college-bound hockey prospects. The league counts current NHL standouts Jack Eichel (Buffalo), Charlie Coyle (Minnesota) and Jimmy Vesey (N.Y. Rangers) among its alumni, as well as many top scorers in Division I and Division III college hockey.

In the past five years, seven USPHL Premier players have skated for the University of Maine alone. Twelve more have played at New Hampshire, 12 more at Boston College and four at Boston University. More than 100 players have laced up their skates in the NCAA’s Hockey East conference alone, something that the league — and the Thunder — see getting only better as time goes on.

Overall, the Premier Division has a footprint stretching from the upper Midwest to the Southeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states.

Now that the team has formally announced its existence, the next step, officials said, is to populate the team with players and a staff — and to sell tickets.

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