LEWISTON — Crouched slightly, wearing a goalie’s helmet and pads, Camree St. Hilaire, 9, kept her eyes focused on the skater rushing toward her.

He shot the puck. She stopped it.

“Nice save!” cheered Bobby King and other fans in the Bates College rink.

A few minutes later, a Lewiston skater raced toward Casco’s net.

“Let’s go, Black! There it is!” King yelled. The Lewiston Area Youth Hockey League Black Squirt scored.

The horn sounded. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends and family got on their feet, cheering. In the second period it was LAYHL Black Squirts, 4; Casco, 2.

This wasn’t just any game.

In this Franco town where hockey roots run deep, Saturday was the opening day of the Lions Tournament, among the oldest continuous youth hockey tournaments in the country.

The official opening ceremony will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee. The championship games will be played Friday before the 4:50 p.m. closing ceremony.

The first Lions Tournament was held in February 1973, after the local Lions Club donated money to make it possible. The tournament is unusual not only for its history, but for the fact that it runs the entire week of February vacation.

“Most tournaments are three days,” said tournament director Steve Bannister. “That makes it a bigger deal.”

From 1973 to 1997, most teams represented local Catholic schools: St. Peter’s, Holy Cross, Holy Family. Each team had a cheering squad.

Opening and closing ceremonies filled the former Central Maine Youth Center. Some 500 young players stepped on the ice, feeling like stars as they were applauded and given a participation patch.

The names of the teams have changed. The players have grown up, but many are still here. Yesterday’s players are today’s parents and coaches.

“I played for Holy Cross,” said Black team coach Earl St. Hilaire, the father of the goalie. When he was a boy playing in the Lions Tournament, “it was an amazing deal,” he said. “It was exciting. We were at the rink from seven in the morning until eight at night.”

During the upcoming week, he’ll be at the three rinks where tournament games will be held: the Colisee, Bates College and Auburn’s Ingersoll Arena. Three of his daughters play hockey.

Jamie King also coaches the Black Squirts. He too played in the Lions Tournament as a boy. He was a forward for St. Pete’s. His father, Bobby King, was a fan.

The younger King recalled the crowds, the ceremonies that included local dignitaries. “It was exciting to make it to the final game, to play for all the people waiting for the closing ceremonies,” he said.

Steve Bannister also played in the tournament. “We always played the same opponents,” he said. “You played for your parish or school, unless you moved.” St. Pete’s and Holy Cross were the two to beat, he said.

During the regular season, “you could be 0 and 12, but if you made it to the championship in the Lions Tournament, that’s what you remembered.”

Lions Tournament hockey players still number about 500. Grandparents join parents to cheer. “I’ll be here every day,” Diana Francoeur said of the upcoming week. “I get goosebumps,” she said, gushing about her grandson, Hunter King. “We get so excited; you want to be right there with them.”

The community should be proud, Bannister said, that despite all of the years, the changes and tough economic times, the Lions Tournament “hasn’t fizzled and died away. That shows the community’s effort and their love of the game.”

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Lions Tournament highlights:

Opening ceremony, 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

Games every day from Sunday through Friday at Colisee, Bates College rink and Ingersoll Arena in Auburn. Teams participating from Maine and Canada.

Championship games Friday at the Colisee: Mites at 7:45 a.m.; Squirts at 9:30 a.m.; Peewees at 11:10 a.m.; Bantams at 12:50 p.m.; Atoms at 2:30 p.m.; Mini-Mites at 3:40 p.m.

Closing ceremony 4:50 p.m. Friday at the Colisee, followed by open skating from 5:45 to 7:30 p.m.

For a complete schedule: http://layhl.com/news.php?news_id=524364

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