LEWISTON – Young, fresh-faced, wide-eyed and clumsy, the Maineiacs franchise debuted in Lewiston in 2003.

The team’s offices were in a trailer beside a 45-year-old, under-construction hockey arena. At the first team barbecue welcoming the first crop of potential players, cooks served rubbery hamburgers. Some of the younger players didn’t attend school that year.

Fast forward four years.

A recently completed addition to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee houses the team’s offices. The folks at the welcome barbecue serve lobster and corn on the cob. Every player not only attended school this year, but also passed every class.

And, the Maineiacs are in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League finals, playing for the President’s Cup.

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Young, fresh-faced, wide-eyed and clumsy, Marc-Andre Cliche and Chad Denny stepped onto the Central Maine Civic Center ice for the first time in 2003.

They were awestruck when some of the veteran players skated by, equal in size, but menacing in stature. Many of the younger players didn’t play much that season, and they struggled to conform to a new culture in a place far away from home.

Fast forward four years.

Cliche is the team’s captain. The locker room he leads is full of players just like him – full of heart and a desire to win. Denny is one of the premier defensemen in the league. At 6-feet-4, he is now feared.

Two players, who have been with the Maineiacs since their meager beginnings, are about to play for the President’s Cup.

Feeling it out

Cliche and Denny weren’t Sidney Crosby. They started small, getting chunks of ice time here and there under a system that favored veterans.

“The first year I was here, I didn’t get to play much, but they gave me a chance to play,” Denny said.”

Dealing with playing time was less of an issue for Cliche, who skated with Mathieu Aubin and Pierre-Luc Faubert on the “kid line.”

But Cliche worried more at the time about fitting in.

“When you’re 16, you get scared because you hear stories about the veterans in the league,” Cliche said. “But we had a good group of veterans, so it was good for that.”

Off the ice, the pair were just as awkward. But you would have been hard-pressed to get them to admit it.

“With all of the baggage that comes with being a 16-year-old kid, he was kind of shy, he wasn’t very outspoken,” said Greg Bourgoin, Cliche’s billet father.

“I think (Denny) was wicked homesick, and he never said a word,” said Sheila Blanchette, his billet mother. “He’s always been so determined.”

A Nation apart

Denny’s situation was unique. Never before had a member of the Eskasoni First Nation played in the QMJHL. Denny blazed that trail in 2003.

“His family was very worried about him, going from living on a reservation his whole life to living in the city with white people,” Blanchette said. “They were worried about racism, and they had heard stories that the further into Maine you went, the worse it got.”

Denny’s grandparents raised him, shuttling their grandson to hockey practices and games for much of his young life.

In Lewiston, Sheila and her husband Don had done the same with their grandson, Kyle. For Maineiacs’ billet coordinator Ron Guerin, the parallels were too obvious to ignore.

“He told me one time that Chad was the only kid that, when he met him, he knew exactly whose house he was going to put him in,” Sheila Blanchette said.

There was tension at first, but it quickly subsided.

“His grandmother came to my house, looked my house over very carefully, wanted to see pictures of my kids and asked some very pointed questions,” Blanchette said. “She turned to her husband in her native tongue and then she told me, ‘He can stay here, he’ll be safe.’ If they weren’t happy when they came to my house that afternoon, they would have taken him right out.”

Breaking the barrier

Cliche had one advantage when he moved to Lewiston that fall – he had already lived and played hockey away from home for a year.

A native of Bellecombe, Quebec, Cliche had traveled to play a year of Midget AAA.

But he didn’t speak English.

“The biggest part was the language,” Cliche said. “I couldn’t say any words in English, and coming here, I knew that Lewiston was only English and American people.”

But, like he has with everything else he’s ever wanted to do, Cliche pushed on.

On the ice, after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury the following year, Cliche emerged as a leader on the team, a sign of things to come.

“(Cliche) is like a good, old bottle of wine,” Maineiacs’ head coach Clem Jodoin said. “The older he is, the better he goes. He never says a word, never complains about anything. He’s ready to do the job, ready to play.”

Denny, meanwhile, continued to develop his hockey sense. He lost what the Blanchette’s called his “baby fat,” developed the hardest shot in the league and started to play with a mean streak.

Now, Jodoin said, Denny has arrived.

“He’s not a kid, he’s a man right now,” Jodoin said. “If he wants to play pro, he has to control the basics of the game. It took him a long time, but now he’s up to a point to where he can say, ‘I know what I have to do.'”

Drawing the parallel

Cliche and Denny have watched the Maineiacs’ organization grow from its infancy, through its awkward teen years and into adulthood. They’ve grown along with it.

“It’s paralleled everything,” Bourgoin said. “From their personal standpoint, it’s the same way the team went. The community is absorbing them the way we as families have with the players over the four years.”

The players have noted the changes, too, from the schooling, to the facility in which they play.

“Look at the rink,” Denny said. “The rink here is unreal … The fan base has grown extremely well.”

“On the school side, the first year, I didn’t even do school,” Cliche said. “This year, we completed five courses.”

Looking to the future

In 2005, the Atlanta Thrashers called Denny’s name at the National Hockey League’s entry draft in the second round, No. 48 overall. Cliche took a call several minutes later from the New York Rangers, who took the young forward at No. 56, also in the second round.

“(Cliche) has always been really focused on what he wants,” Greg Bourgoin’s wife, Debbie, said. “He’s always wanted to get drafted and play in the NHL.”

Denny and Cliche have already turned 20. They were born four days apart in March 1987, but they first met on hot June day in Val-d’Or , where both were called to the podium by Maineiacs’ management – Cliche in Round 1 and Denny in Round 2.

The first two players ever to put on a Lewiston sweater will likely leave the Maineiacs after this season for professional hockey.

But they are indelibly linked to the franchise.

Cliche and Denny have grown up. The Lewiston Maineiacs have grown up.

And on the eve of the team’s first trip to the President’s Cup final, a community is poised to watch them all become men – Older, chiseled, focused and sure-footed men, with dreams of one day being able to look back at Lewiston and remember where it all began.

In a trailer, beside a 45-year-old, under-construction arena, sitting on the grass eating rubbery hamburgers, looking into the jaws of opportunity.


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