“Dump it and change!”

“Skate!”

“Noooo!”

His voice trailed off, but it was still audible.

And unmistakable.

For nearly 42 seasons Gagne’s voice has bounced off many boards, ice surfaces and locker room walls. On Saturday, those within earshot heard — and witnessed — history.

With a 6-1 victory over Portland/Deering, Scarborough’s boys’ ice hockey team helped Gagne earn his 700th career coaching victory, easily the most in Maine history and second-best in the country.

“It’s a milestone that is just, it’s unbelievable,” Gagne said in the days leading up to the milestone win. “When I started out, I never started out thinking, ‘Hey, jeez, maybe someday I’ll win 700 games.’ You just don’t do that.”

You just don’t win 700 games, either.

And he nearly didn’t win any at all.

It’s a story Gagne has told probably 700 times in its own right: He never intended to coach high school hockey. He wanted to coach football. But, in 1974, the opportunity arose to coach at Gardiner Area High School. He thought he could start as a hockey coach and transition to football.

He never left the rink.

A title-filled journey

After one year of coaching a club team, Gagne approached the Maine Principals’ Association about having his and the other Maine club teams become sanctioned varsity squads. Those club teams became what is now Class B.

Gagne’s Gardiner Tigers played in the first Class B state championship game in 1976 but lost to Biddeford. It was the first of many title-game heartbreaks for Gagne.

“We were always close,” he said. “We made a couple more state championship games, but we lost, and I was starting to think we were snakebit.”

Gagne and the Tigers finally broke through in 1981, and also won titles in 1983 and 1985.

After building one program into a champion, Gagne had the chance to rebuild a former powerhouse at Waterville High School. Gagne took the job, and then backed out briefly.

A trip to see his ailing father at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston caused Gagne to change his mind again.

“I went and saw him, and he was on his deathbed. And he said, ‘You’ve got to go to Waterville,'” Gagne recalled. “He says, ‘It’s a Class A program, and it’s got a lot of tradition.'”

The Purple Panthers were struggling before Gagne took over, with coaches coming and going. Gagne wondered how long he might last.

“I ended up my first year wondering why I left Gardiner,” Gagne said. “But I stayed 18 years.”

In those 18 years, Gagne won three more titles, in 1991, 1996 and 2001.

After the 2003-04 season, Gagne retired from teaching full time. He and his wife, Ronda, moved closer to her family in southern Maine. But he still had the itch to coach. After initially signing on as a co-coach at Cheverus, Gagne took a solo gig coaching Class B Gorham.

A year later, Class A powerhouse — and fierce Waterville rival — Lewiston High School had a head coaching vacancy. So did his alma mater, Edward Little of Auburn.

Against the advice of his own mother, Gagne took the Lewiston job. In three seasons, his Blue Devils went to the state final each year, losing once to Cheverus and twice to Biddeford.

From Lewiston he went to his current coaching home, Scarborough High School. The team won six games in his first season at the helm. A year ago, the Red Storm hoisted its first state crown as a heavy underdog, earning for Gagne his seventh championship.

“I think (winning in 2015) meant the world to him,” Scarborough assistant coach Jake Brown said. Brown played defense for Gagne at Lewiston.

“I don’t think he’s done anytime soon, either,” Brown said. “I don’t think it was a feeling of, ‘He got his last one.’ He’s still got the passion for it. He’s still got the effort into it.”

“This guy, he’s a winner,” said Waterville coach Dennis Martin, who played for and then assisted Gagne behind the bench. “He’s still got that fire. And he coaches the kids. It’s more than hockey to him. It’s life.”

Leading by example

Seven-hundred wins have not come under soft leadership.

Gagne’s teaching has gone beyond being a good hockey player, or being a good student. He tasks his players with being leaders.

“I’ve always been one to teach my leaders how to be leaders,” Gagne said. “Not to just wear the ‘C,’ but to take responsibility for the team.”

One of Gagne’s first captains was Ted Robbins, at Gardiner, in 1978. Gagne had to lean on Robbins more than most, because he was the only senior remaining after five others left the team. The rest of the team was young, and Gagne told Robbins that he had to get the other players to believe.

Robbins had all of the players chant, “One, two, three — we believe!” before every game.

“They literally looked up to him because he was like 6-6, and they were all a bunch of little half-pints,” Gagne said.

Robbins led the team to the state championship game before losing to Winslow in overtime.

Robbins died in college of cancer, and Gagne had his jersey retired. The Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell held a dedication for Robbins a few years ago. Gagne spoke at the dedication, and “it was hard for me to get through,” he said.

“The one thing that he does really well is he holds his captains and his leaders to the highest standard possible,” Brown said. “You can’t just become a captain with him. You have to pretty much apply for it. He really holds those leaders accountable.”

Gagne said Scarborough’s leadership helped the team earn its state championship a year ago. A continual passing of the torch has had as much to do with the Red Storm’s recent success as the talent.

“It almost seems like each group that I have, as leaders, tries to out-do the other group in taking the kids under their wing and teaching them,” Gagne said. “At Scarborough, I’ve had some great leaders. I had some great leaders at Waterville. I had some great leaders at Gardiner. And I had some great leaders at Lewiston. Those are the kids who rise to the occasion and help you motivate the rest of the team. It’s not just me. It’s the guidance that I give in my leadership, and then my leadership helps me. I’ve been very blessed with some great kids over the years who have bought into my system and my values.”

A little help from his friends

For as many character-driven players as Gagne has coached, he’s been equally blessed, he said, with quality assistants.

Brown, Martin and Thomas College coach Jeff Ross are among the many to whom Gagne has imparted his wisdom.

“He kind of took me under his wing,” said Ross, who joined Gagne’s Waterville staff for the 2000-01 state championship season, and was on his staff at Lewiston for three years.

Ross said he didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know what he was in for driving to his first practice with Gagne.

But his new boss was friendly and welcoming, and being a coach with Gagne was about much more than being a puck-pusher, Ross said.

“I’ve always felt that if you’re going to coach with me, that you’re going to coach,” Gagne said.

“It’s been a really good learning experience,” Brown said. “He’s also a coach where he doesn’t micromanage the whole program. He trusts his assistants to do their share. Throughout the years he’s allowed me to, over time, take more responsibilities. He’s got stories for every situation. He knows that I want to be a head coach, so he’s been able to teach me a lot.”

Gagne said he is proud that many of his assistants have moved on to become head coaches. It’s those assistants who have played a big part in Gagne’s accumulation of 700 wins.

“I’ve had some great, great assistant coaches,” Gagne said. “I could have never done it alone.”

Gagne pointed to Dan McGovern, Tony Hart and Jeff Libby at Scarborough; Mike Hefty and Porky Boulet at Lewiston; Sam Shaw, Charlie Brown and Joe Clark at Gardiner; and Roland Hallee at Waterville as key former assistants.

Gagne remembered his coaching staff at Lewiston as being a big reason the team went to the state championship game all three years he was there.

“We had a great staff,” Gagne said. “We had some great kids, too. They really worked hard. It was a very, very good experience I had. It’s just that we didn’t hit with a lot of the parents. They didn’t like my style. I still have no regrets.”

Working hard for winning

Gagne was — and still is — a disciplinarian.

“He’s a very serious coach; he comes to the rink and treats it professionally,” Lewiston JV coach Ben McDonough said. McDonough played for Gagne with the Blue Devils.

Ross learned quickly that Gagne demanded discipline.

“We had a good team that year,” Ross said of the 2000-01 Waterville championship team. “We didn’t take practices off. When we came to practice, we came to work. The boys had fun, but when we stepped on the ice the boys worked hard.

“There was an understanding of when you got on that ice you’ve got to work,” Ross said. “He definitely instilled that in me.”

Gagne demands that his players put in work off the ice as well. He said he doesn’t want to have to chase his players to keep their grades up or to worry about whether students will be eligible to play.

“I learned a long time ago from a lot of older coaches who always told me, ‘Get kids who work hard and care about their grades, and being good citizens, and you’re going to win. You get smart kids, you’re going to win.’ So I always held onto that,” Gagne said.

When he coached at Waterville, Gagne said, for many of his players from the city’s south end, hockey was all they had, and it kept them in school.

Motivation

One of Gagne’s biggest strengths is his ability to motivate.

“My first impression of him was, I think it was even just the first exhibition game, sitting in that locker room when he made his pregame speech, and it was just like, ‘Wow, this guy’s got something special,'” Ross said. “And I’ll never forget walking out of there, and Dennis Martin … said to me, ‘He’s good at that, huh?'”

Gagne’s mystique has been evident not only in pregame speeches but in poignant motivational moments when his teams have most needed them.

In the 1983 state final, Gagne’s Gardiner team trailed 4-0 after two periods.

“I told the kids in the locker room that we could win this game,” Gagne said, “but that we were going to have to rely on everybody and trust one another. We were going to go 30-second shifts, and we were not going to match lines. You stayed for 30 and you got off. We ended up scoring three or four goals in … almost two minutes. My son was there. He went to the bathroom. When he came back, we were ahead. We ended up winning the game 7-4 in regulation. I believe with eight minutes left in the game, we still hadn’t scored a goal yet.”

“I think he’s very good at motivating people to go through a wall for him in those speeches,” Ross said. “And when things aren’t going well, he can motivate change and he can motivate momentum changes just from how he speaks to the kids and gets them going before the game.”

Gagne said he never goes into a game thinking his team will lose. That belief stays strong even when defeat would seem imminent to others.

“When I was at Waterville, we were in the same situation against St. Dom’s, 5-0 in a semifinal game. Whoever won was going to the state championship,” Gagne said. “I told the kids in the locker room, ‘This rink’s always been good to me. It’ll be good to you if you work hard and get after it and decide that you want to win this game.’ I said, ‘St. Dom’s has already punched their ticket to the state championship. They’re in the locker room right now happier than hell they’re going to the state championship. And that’s their weakness. They forgot there’s 15 more minutes of game here. You need to decide whether you want to pack it in or you want to go to the state championship.'”

The score was still 5-0 midway through the third period. Gagne’s team rallied, tied the game with a couple of seconds left, and won 6-5 in the first minute of overtime.

“It’s just incredible, things like that, that we’ve had unbelievable comebacks with some of the players that I’ve had, simply because I think I can motivate,” Gagne said.

Preparation

Words alone have not won Gagne’s teams 700 games. It also took preparation.

“He always got us ready for the game that we were playing,” Brown said. “The thing is, there’s not another guy out there who likes to win as much as him. Whether we were playing a Tier III team, or we were playing St. Dom’s, the way he demanded for us to prepare and the way our practices looked before games were the same.”

Brown said that Gagne still prepares his teams the same way. He said in the state championship game last year, Scarborough was comfortable being on the biggest stage because the team practiced the same way for that game as they had for any other.

“I know when I scouted St. Dom’s after we had beaten Cheverus — I stayed to watch the game between Lewiston and St. Dom’s — and they were loaded. St. Dom’s was loa-ded,” Gagne said. “I said to Jake, I said, ‘Jake, we got to come up with a game plan to stop these guys.’ I said, ‘They’re so (darn) fast.’ And we did. And the kids bought right into what we did.”

The state final against St. Dom’s showed off much of Gagne’s abilities as a coach. He game-planned how to slow down St. Dom’s speed and offensive ability.

It worked. The underdog Red Storm toppled the Saints in overtime.

“It was great to see because of the times we’ve fallen short lately,” Brown said.

A lasting legacy

Despite being Edward Little’s first varsity hockey goalie, Gagne’s career path could have missed the sport altogether more than once. He nearly played basketball in high school, nearly coached football after college.

Forty-two years — and 700 wins — later, though, here he is, still going strong at 71.

The world around him has changed, and yet not much has changed on the ice, save for the color of his teams’ uniforms and the names of his assistant coaches.

“What’s amazing is that he’s coached through so many years,” Brown said. “Just the game has changed — the way you communicate with kids has changed, the way you communicate with parents has changed — and I think he’s been able to adapt to that. Today, in coaching, coaches don’t last 15, 20 years. And the fact that he’s lasted this long with coaching, I think, just shows the passion he’s got for it. He loves working with the kids, and that’s why he’s had success.”

His love of the game notwithstanding, the love of his life has helped along the way, as well.

“Ronda is very supportive of what he does, which makes life a lot easier when you have a supportive spouse who can do that,” Ross said. He added that when he was coaching with Gagne at Waterville, the staff would go to the Gagne house after games and Ronda — who usually would attend the games herself — would cook snacks for the coaches.

And when the season is over, Ross said, Gagne has interests that help him get away from the rink: namely, golf.

But it will be his accolades behind a hockey bench that will define his career for generations. He is the winningest coach in Maine history, and recently moved into second all-time in the country, passing former Arlington (Mass.) High School coach Ed Burns, who had 695 wins in his 50-year career. He is likely too far removed from No. 1 all-time, a mark held by Bill Belisle, who racked up more than 900 wins in Rhode Island.

Gagne admitted that he wasn’t aware of his place on the all-time wins list until a few years ago, when his daughter contacted the National Federation of State High School Associations to see where he stood. The association contacted Gagne, who provided the governing body with his year-by-year results.

“I didn’t have any clue about where I was,” Gagne said. “But to see where I am now, and how far I’ve come, and have had great success with the players that I’ve had, I’m just thrilled that I’ve been able to share this with all of my players and all of my assistant coaches.”

“He’s like that fine wine, he just keeps getting better with age,” Martin said. “I’m happy for Coach. This is his passion. He loves it.”

“Are we going to see someone like that again? I don’t think so,” Ross said. “He has everything. He has the whole package, with knowledge of the sport, able to motivate kids to play, as well as going above and beyond, doing what’s best for the team, what’s best for the program, what’s best for the sport.

“I don’t know that you’ll ever find someone as passionate as he is that gives back to the game.”

Gagne said it’s hard to single out any one milestone as most important.

“It’s hard to remember all of the moments,” Gagne said, his signature rasp belying his obvious emotion. “But I’ll remember this 700th one, I’ll tell you that.”


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