LEWISTON – Bobby Hull’s name is legendary in hockey circles. In 16 seasons in the NHL and another seven in the WHA, Hull amassed 913 goals and 895 assists in 1,474 games.

As the commissioner of a league trying to recapture the spirit of the old World Hockey Association, Hull and the president of the league, Ricky Smith, have announced that they will be coming to Lewiston next month to propose a new, six-team junior hockey league based in Maine.

“Our whole goal is to give kids in Maine a chance to further their hockey careers,” Smith said in a phone interview from Ontario. “The league will be for players 16- to 20-years old, and we’re going to skate under the actual team names and logos of the old WHA, even use the retro jerseys.”

Some of the names Smith threw out included the Fighting Saints, Crusaders, Cougars, Stingers, Whalers and Mariners.

“We want the flagship team of the league to be in Lewiston,” said Smith.

Currently, Smith and Hull operate the WHA Super Junior League in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Smith says the operation there would continue, but he would move with his family to Maine to oversee operation of the new league.

“I think we could do it without upsetting the demographic balance of the local players at the high school level,” said Smith. “I talked to a lot of scouts who see Maine talent, and they tell me there’s a lot of talent all across the state.”

Local reaction

Local hockey coaches and those knowledgeable about high school hockey in Maine were not sold on the idea, and believe it could cripple the sport.

“It would kill high school hockey,” said St. Dom’s coach John Pleau, who has also been involved with Maine Select programs for more than 20 years. “Some teams, the numbers and the talent are already down. You take the two or three best kids off of every team in Maine and forget it. Maine is so sparse, there just aren’t enough kids to do it.”

Pleau’s former bench boss and St. Dom’s athletic director Bob Boucher was also cautious, especially from a scholastic standpoint.

“I would certainly be opposed to it,” said Boucher. “If kids go in that direction, they’re playing 65 to 70 games a year, and they’re out of school for half of the calendar year.

“The thing is,” Boucher continued, “we have 85 to 90 percent of the hockey players in Maine, maybe even more, who play other sports, so those would all suffer, too. It just wouldn’t work.”

At the Maine Principals’ Association, the reaction was understandably similar, as many schools are already losing some of their best players to the Portland Junior Pirates, who operate out of Portland and Biddeford.

“First of all, kids of that quality are already off playing in college, usually,” said MPA Assistant Executive Director Larry LaBrie. “Bangor lost its best player this year (Nick Payson) to a junior team and a lot of the Portland-area teams have lost some of their best players to the Junior Pirates. I just don’t know where you’d even get the numbers, honestly.”

LaBrie also cited the already overbooked arenas and a lack of ice time as possible deterrents.

“Some kids might want to play there because of the aura of it,” said LaBrie, “but I think they’d be hard-pressed to come up with two or three full teams, let alone six.”

“We don’t want to deplete the high school teams,” reiterated Smith.

Crossing paths

Another potential problem Smith and Hull face is the Lewiston Maineiacs’ rights to exclusivity at the Colisee. As the principal tenant, the Maineiacs have a right to refuse any team the right to play there.

“It really depends on the kind of league it is,” said Maineiacs Vice President and Governor Matt McKnight. “If we figured it would hurt us, we could stop it.”

Smith said he didn’t believe there would be a problem, as the league he intends to shop to the area would play a self-described “Junior B level” of hockey. Still, McKnight wasn’t sold.

“At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a good idea,” said McKnight. “I don’t think we’d go there anyway.”

After hearing of the Maineiacs’ exclusivity clause, Smith offered up another suggestion.

“We just need to find six arenas,” said Smith. “We can not include Lewiston, if need be. We are not in competition with them, though.”

Next step

According to Smith, his next step is to set up a general meeting, along with his partner, Hull, with the Maine hockey community.

“We’re coming to Maine in late February for two days,” said Smith. “We want to have a conference and invite all of the hockey coaches, players, arena owners. We want to explain what the WHA is, what it does for the community. Our ultimate goal is to bring exposure to some kids who ultimately wouldn’t get that kind of look.”

Smith did not have an exact date for his visit, saying only it would be “at the end of February.”

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