LEWISTON — More Tier II junior hockey is coming to the Twin Cities in the 2019-20 season.

On Thursday, the North American Hockey League — the only USA Hockey sanctioned Tier II junior hockey league — announced Thursday that Lewiston will have a Tier II team, the Maine Nordiques, that will begin play in the Androscoggin Bank Colisee beginning next season in the league’s East Division.

The NAHL currently has 24 teams. That number will increase to 26 next season as the league also announced Thursday the addition of New Mexico Ice Wolves as an expansion team in South Division.

The NAHL is a major feeder system for NCAA Division I teams as of the 190 league’s commitments this season, 94 percent of the players are committed to play at the Division I level after junior hockey.

The University of Maine, for instance, currently has eight NAHL alumni on the roster, including leading scorer Mitchell Fossier, who starred for the Janesville Jets in 2014-15, and Jakub Sirota, who played for Janesville this season before joining the Black Bears at Christmas break.

The Black Bears currently have five recruits either playing in the NAHL currently or who have played in the NAHL.

At last year’s NHL draft, two players were drafted directly out of the NAHL.

Goaltender Mitchell Gibson went in the fourth round to the Washington Capitals. He’s currently playing in the United States Hockey League — USA Hockey’s lone Tier I junior hockey league — and is committed to Harvard for next season. The Ottawa Senators drafted forward Jacov Novak from Janesville. He’s currently playing at American International College.

The Maine Nordiques will be owned by Darryl Antonacci, who also runs the ISS Kings Youth Hockey Club out of Princeton, New Jersey, and Nolan Howe, the grandson of Gordie Howe. Jim Cain, the owner of the Colisee, will be part of the ownership group.

“We literally divided the entity up itself. The business operations of the team itself will by my responsibility, (and) obviously Mike, my son, and all of the rest of the people who work at the Colisee,” Cain said. “Which means sponsorships, tickets, sales and those kinds of things — the day-to-day operation.

“The team operations, Dr. Antonacci and Nolan Howe will play an integral part on that side. Everybody is playing to their strength. I know quite a bit about hockey, but I am not a coach. I know the business of hockey and that’s the part that will be my function.”

The two parties — the Colisee group and the ownership group — met on a blind date of sorts. Cain was looking for major anchor tenant, while Antonacci and Howe wanted an NAHL franchise but didn’t have a suitable building to house a team.

Cain has has dealt with the NAHL in the past, having run buildings that have housed NAHL franchises, including the Michigan Warriors in Flint, Michigan.

The groups each had a mutual friend, Mark Frankenfeld, the commissioner and president of the NAHL, who decided to set the two up.

“That’s what literally what happened,” Cain said. “It was on recommendation from Mark Frankenfeld because of my experience with him. He’s been to the Colisee many times and he has been personally trying to assist and trying find the right relationship for me. Like I said, I am no stranger, I have known Mark Frankenfeld for 20 years. He was actually a coach in the league when I first met him and how he’s the commissioner.”

Cain and L/A Nordiques coach Cam Robichaud made a good first impression.

“When I say there was an instantaneous connection, I couldn’t be more open and truthful about it,” Howe said. “It’s been the most exciting part of it the last three months is just the ability to communicate with Jim Cain, and feel we are very much on the same page as far as our ethics and goals. I know both Jim and Dr. Antonacci have worked very well together and have been very liked-minded in the whole process. For Cam and myself, boy did we just hit it off.”

The current L/A Nordiques, who play in the NAHL’s Tier III league, the NA3HL, will continue to play in the NA3HL next season. In addition, the ISS Kings will be known as the Maine Nordiques’ U18 Development Program (MNDP). That team will continue to have its offices in New Jersey and play out of Bristol, Pennsylvania, for the 2019-20 season before transitioning to Lewiston for the 2020-21 season.

Howe has made a five-year commitment to the NAHL to run a franchise, but he strongly stated he’s in it for the long-term, beyond the five years. He will be the Director of Hockey Operations for the three teams in the organization, the Maine Nordiques, L/A Nordiques and the MNDP. Robichaud, the Nordiques head coach the past two years, will become the organization’s Director of Player Recruitment and Player Advancement.

Frankenfeld knew when the Colisee lost the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League after the 2010-11 season that the market could be a good destination for the NAHL.

The league wasn’t able to place a team then because there were no teams on the East Coast.  That all changed in 2015-16 when the NAHL announced an East Division, which the Maine Nordiques are now set to join.

“I call it getting across the creek without getting your shoes wet,” Frankenfeld said. “You need enough stones to cross the creek. At the time, we didn’t have enough (team) memberships out there, we didn’t have the footprint that we have now. The Northeast Generals getting out there, just outside of Boston, gave Lewiston an opportunity to be a part of the league.”

Currently, the East Division has the Jamestown Rebels (Jamestown, New York), Johnstown Tomahawks (Johnstown, Pennsylvania), Maryland Black Bears (Odenton, Maryland), New Jersey Titans (Middletown, New Jersey), Northeast Generals (North Attleboro, Massachusetts), and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights (Pittston, Pennsylvania).

Frankenfeld saw first hand the Lewiston-Auburn area’s passion for hockey when the Colisee hosted the NA3EHL Championship in 2015, when the New Hampshire Fighting Spirit took on the Jersey Shore Wildcats. The New Hampshire Fighting Spirit were the precursor to the L/A Fighting Spirit, who later became the L/A Nordiques.

“I was up in Maine for the league championship and we had 1,200 folks on a Sunday afternoon,” Frankenfeld said. “It was a wonderful junior hockey championship event up there. That was my first face-to-face impressions of (Lewiston), other than the things I have seen or heard about it.

“It led me to believe this would be a nice spot for a North American Hockey League team to set up shop to be there for a long period of time.”

The announcement of the Maine Nordiques means that two Tier II teams will play their inaugural seasons in Lewiston-Auburn next season.

The Twin City Thunder will have a Tier II team play in the United States Premier Hockey League’s National Collegiate Development Conference. The Thunder will also continue to have a Tier III team in the USPHL’s Premier League.

Unlike the NAHL, the USPHL is not affiliated with USA Hockey at the junior level and considers itself independent from a governing body.

Robichaud doesn’t believe another junior team a 4-mile drive away will have much effect on the Maine Nordiques.

“We are going to worry about doing what we do and doing it well here for the Lewiston-Auburn community and the state of Maine,” Robichaud said.