The state capital of hockey is back where it belongs.

On a sheet of ice in a remarkably refurbished building, resting in the rustic shadow of the dormant sweat shops that gave a city its identity and its fighting spirit.

With their one-sided rush to the President’s Cup final, by filling Androscoggin Bank Colisee with the throaty roar of 3,000 locals night after winter and spring night, the Lewiston Maineiacs have awakened dormant echoes and recreated a way of life.

For one wild winter and potentially four more magical nights, Lewiston has reclaimed its rightful heritage.

Welcome to Hockey Town.

The Maineiacs haven’t broken new ground with their majestic run through Shawinigan, Halifax, Rouyn-Noranda, and now Val-d’Or. But if you’re a hockey lifer in this neighborhood, you know the scourge of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is unearthing some precious gems. Fossils, even.

“I like what’s going around in town right now,” said Maineiacs coach Clem Jodoin. “I like that everywhere you are going, a restaurant or whatever, they talk about it. Everybody is happy, everybody is involved, everybody wants to know, and that’s a good sign.”

Yes, Coach, after two decades of relative apathy, and watching the rest of the region put its own stamp on the phenomenon we created, indeed it is.

Hockey wasn’t invented in Lewiston. Pretty damn close, though.

Working-class French Canadians packed the game in their luggage when they emigrated just south of the border and perfected it here. They constructed backyard and street-corner rinks. In real time, they taught the finer points of the old country’s game to a bourgeoisie that had known primarily baseball and boxing.

The Association St. Dominique fathered the sport from the friendly confines of its open-air arena on Bartlett Street, slapping Auburn’s Metropolitan Club in the Twin Cities’ first hockey game.

Score: 7-0. Date: January 26, 1916.

Within eight winters, public fervor for the new community activity led to the indoor “Ice Box.” That’s when humble beginnings evolved into hockey history.

Hockey in the Twin Cities today is a kids’ game, whether the practitioner is a mite raised on Montello Street or a pro prospect from Prince Edward Island. But it used to be escapist fare for young men; mill workers and professionals who still had the skills to thrill the masses.

Lewiston’s great semi-pro tradition was born with the Cyclones, an Amateur Athletic Union team of locals that toured the Northeast during the Great Depression.

Dubbed the “Famous Flying Frenchmen,” the Cyclones wielded such born-to-be-a-hockey-player names as Roland Saucier, Hank Desjardins, Gerald Leblanc and ‘Monk’ Lepage. They toured Boston, New York City, Atlantic City and Baltimore, dishing out healthy doses of hockey the way it was meant to be played.

Another top-flight amateur squad borrowed its name from one of the NHL’s Original Six. The Maple Leafs provided a needed distraction and kept hockey afloat as the nation’s attention turned to World War II.

While the adults worried about weightier matters, kids signed their name to the burgeoning game. Starting in 1947, St. Dom’s carved out a streak (unlikely to be matched) of 11 consecutive state championships.

The dedication of a new St. Dominic Arena in 1950 ushered in the golden era of Lewiston hockey. Within months, the Montreal Canadiens rode into town for an exhibition game against Bates Manufacturing Company, tops among the adult club teams that reigned in the area.

Perhaps inspired by their flirtation with the big league, the Fabriques pulled off a series of colossal upsets later that winter and brought home the city’s first national championship in any sport. Bates edged a team from Rochester, Minn., in a two-game, total-goal final for the Amateur Hockey Association senior title.

A year later, the Fabriques represented the United States at the world championships in Paris. Beat that, Portland. Or Manchester and Hartford, for that matter.

Bates’ reign over the amateur scene ended when the original St. Dom’s Arena burned to the ground in 1956. The Dominican Fathers’ rebuilding project led to the Central Maine Youth Center, or the shell of what is now the Colisee.

Superb semi-pro rivalries rose from the ashes. Filling the void left by the Fabriques were the L&A Twins, who won a New England championship in 1964. The Twins’ heated rivalry with the Berlin (N.H.) Maroons rapidly gave the modern arena personality, filling it to fervent capacity.

That’s when the story lost its happy ending, for a spell.

Maine hockey was born in Lewiston. No disputing that. But then, like too many of our best and brightest today, it relocated.

With the dawn of the Calder Cup champion Mariners and later the Pirates, Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center emerged as the state house of the sport. Throughout the 1990s and into the present, a flurry of Frozen Four teams at the University of Maine transformed Orono into hockey’s true north.

Nostalgia gave rise to the L-A Rapids, an early ’90s descendant of the Twins. Crowds were minimal, and the final link to Lewiston’s enormous amateur hockey history faded into fast oblivion.

The number of high school varsity teams multiplied fourfold, with new arenas affording equal ice time from Kittery to Presque Isle. Suddenly, the late-winter rite of watching Lewiston or St. Dom’s skate around their home rink with the state championship trophy was no longer a foregone conclusion.

Once filled to capacity for weekly high school doubleheaders, the renamed Colisee is typically characterized by one empty seat for each occupied one, even when the attraction is a Lewiston-St. Dom’s showdown.

Enter the Maineiacs.

Slow to catch on in their inaugural season of 2003-04, the lone stateside extension of the ‘Q’ has wowed us with a skill that’s comparable to just about any college or minor league game.

We’ve been given a precious opportunity to catch rising stars, both in the white uniforms and dressed up for the bad guys. Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury and Alexandre Picard have skated through town. It’s only a matter of time before we’re watching Jonathan Bernier and Marc-Andre Cliché on Versus.

More importantly, the Maineiacs have given us a rallying point that was sorely missing in this oft-divided community. Walking into the Colisee, watching the white towels wave in exuberant unison and hearing the collective roar when a hometown hero sets off the red light, it conveys a sense of ownership and self-confidence that I’ve seen with alarming infrequency over the years.

“Now people start to know the product, the toy that they have in their hands,” Jodoin said. “It’s a great toy.”

I can’t say for sure whether all this enthusiasm is a Christmas morning phenomenon; simply a by-product of winning. For now, I don’t think any of us should care.

Lewiston has its swagger back. We are Hockey Town, Maine, USA. Deal with it.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected] Special thanks to the Lewiston Maineiacs for providing access to game programs and the “wall of fame” in their Shipyard Lounge.

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