Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories analyzing junior hockey in Maine.

Lewiston-Auburn is about to become a college hockey recruiting ground with Tier II junior hockey coming to both sides of the Androscoggin River this season.

Maine senior forward Mitch Fossier played in the NAHL during the 2014-15 season with the Janesville Jets. Mark Tutuny photo

Lewiston’s Maine Nordiques are members of North American Hockey League, which had 199 NCAA Division I commitments playing in the league last season and another 99 players who were committed to Division II or III schools.

The USPHL reported 37 players with Division I commitments who played in its National Collegiate Development Conference, in which Auburn’s Twin City Thunder play, last season, while 67 players will play at for Division II or III programs.

Maine is home to five NCAA men’s college hockey programs: the University of Maine, the state’s lone Division I program, along with Division III programs the University of Southern Maine, University of New England, Bowdoin College and Colby College.

“We have those relationships already (with those schools), now with the Tier II level coming in, now our job is to have players of the caliber for those types of schools,” Twin City Thunder NCDC coach Doug Friedman said. “If they are, then we are doing our job right.

“I know for those guys that I have spoken with at all levels of colleges in Maine, they are super excited that now they get the Thunder and they got another program in Lewiston where they can come and not have to travel across the (Piscataqua River Bridge) to head down south to watch higher-level competition.”

University of Maine head coach Dennis “Red” Gendron. University of Maine Athletics

University of Maine coach Dennis “Red” Gendron thinks the hockey history of Lewiston and Auburn make it a good place for players to develop their games before reaching the college level.

“So many young hockey players now need to spend some time in junior hockey before they are ready for college hockey,” Gendron said. “Whether it’s at our level, here at the University of Maine in Division I, or even some of the other schools in the state that compete at the (Division III) level. It’s a wonderful opportunity and obviously, the teams in the Lewiston-Auburn area, there’s a very rich history of hockey excellence in that part of our state. I think it’s a terrific place for young men to chase their dreams, being in a community that has a long history in the sport of hockey.”

For the upcoming season the Black Bears will have 15 players that played in either in the NAHL or the USPHL — nine played in the NAHL and seven in the USPHL (sophomore Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup played in both leagues during his junior career).

One of Maine’s verbal commitments for 2020-21, Connor Androlewicz, is manning the pipes for the Nordiques this season.

The state’s Division III schools are starting to shift their recruiting to the Tier II level and getting kids who drew interest from Division I programs.

“It’s a home run for us, we have eight freshmen coming in this year, three of them are from the North American League and the other five are from the NCDC,” UNE coach Kevin Swallow said. “It’s awesome to have both (leagues) in the backyard now.”

Swallow said the incoming recruiting class is the best of his five-year tenure at UNE. The Nor’easters have been able to land more borderline players, those who drew some Division I interest, in large part because of their back-to-back NCAA Division III tournament appearances.

Bowdoin men’s hockey coach Jamie Dumont, a Lewiston native, on the bench in a game against Middlebury in January 2018. Brian Beard – CIP

Jamie Dumont, a Lewiston native who’s entering in his fourth season as Bowdoin’s coach, has made inroads recruiting at the Tier II level and in the Canadian Junior “A” Leagues — the level below the Canadian major juniors — in addition to the prep school level in New England.

“The game, especially for our level, it has gotten older,” Dumont said. “I think the average age now is just under 20 years old. This year, we have two boys with North American league experience coming in, we have a boy with NCDC (experience), we have a boy with from (Central Canadian Hockey League in Ontario) and a boy from the (British Columbia Hockey League).

“If we can get guys a little bit older, a little bit more mileage on their game, on and off the ice from a maturity standpoint, it’s a huge benefit.”

ADDED EXPOSURE

The state’s four Division III schools are excited because the new Tier II teams will allow them to reach new players, especially those from the Midwest who might not know much about D-III hockey in the Northeast, or the caliber of the education the schools offer.

“They probably know our hockey programs in the Midwest, but they don’t necessarily know how exceptional our schools are academically,” MacDonald said. “Now, they can dig in a little bit more because they will be more exposed to it. I think they will see the value of a NESCAC education.”

Colby College is opening a $200 million athletic complex next year that includes improvements to the Alfond Rink that the hockey coaches can show off to potential recruits.

University of Southern Maine men’s hockey coach Ed Harding. Submitted photo

There was one word that was constant among the five coaches with Tier II junior hockey coming the Twin Cities.

“It just makes it a little more convenient,” University of Southern Maine head coach Ed Harding said.

“Here, the big thing with the North American league, the closest (team) was in Attleboro, (Massachusetts) which was great,” Harding added. “I could get down there and watch the games, but it was very difficult to get one of those young men up to the Portland area to visit the campus and check out the area. That’s where it’s going to help us because we are going to have these (team) buses right by us and we might be able to get one of the players we are interested in, stop in and check it out.”

Harding was a coach with the Lewiston Maineiacs from 2003-2009, including a stint as head coach from 2007-2009. Has already taken advantage of the Nordiques. The team hosted its pre-draft camp in Portland in May, and he was able to arrange for a couple of players he was already recruiting who were attending the camp to stop by USM’s Gorham campus.

While it’s easy for coaches to get recruits on campus in the summer months, it’s a different story during the hockey season. But it should be easier for the Maine schools with team buses driving up and down I-95 every weekend.

University of Maine junior forward Tim Doherty played for the Boston Junior Bruins of the USPHL from 2013-16. Peter Buehner photo

HELPING EACH OTHER

For any college coach in any sport, it’s important to have relationships with coaches of the players they are recruiting.

Red Gendron has a former staff member in each of the Twin Cities junior hockey organizations: Nordiques video coach Eric Michaud and Thunder video coach Dan Condon, who both served as Gendron’s video coach in Orono.

Gendron also coached against Thunder NCDC coach Doug Friedman when Friedman was a player at Boston University from 1990-94, while Gendron was an assistant at Maine from 1990-93 under legendary head coach Shawn Walsh.

Nordiques head coach Nolan Howe also worked alongside Gendron at a summer hockey camp years ago.

An assistant coach at BU when Friedman was a player there is current Colby College head coach Blaise MacDonald.

Maine junior defenseman Cam Spicer played in the USPHL during the 2016-17 season with the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs. Mark Tutuny photo

“That’s one of the advantages of coaching 35 years is you got a lot of players in the business in one form or another,” MacDonald said. “To have Doug Friedman, who was a great captain for us at Boston University, to be working and be doing a great job with the Twin City Thunder, it’s definitely a huge help for us recruiting-wise.”

Friedman also played against one of MacDonald’s assistants, Mike Latrendresse, who played at Maine from 1992-94, and he coached against Colby’s other assistant Tyler Walsh — Shawn’s son — when Friedman was at Kents Hills School and Walsh was the head coach at North Yarmouth Academy.

Cam Robichaud, the Maine Nordiques assistant coach and director of recruitment and advancement, attended the Maineiacs training camp as a player at the start of the 2006-07 season when Harding was an assistant coach.

While the goal of junior hockey is to get to the college level, college coaches reciprocate by letting junior coaches know of a potential recruit or a recruit who they should keep an eye on or try to sign.

“I don’t think there’s any question that conversation goes back and forth, because junior coaches are always looking to populate their teams,” Gendron said. “They are in a little bit of a disadvantage compared to colleges. The bottom line in junior hockey, you are fortunate if you have a player for two years at the most, sometimes it’s a one and done.

“If you think recruiting is challenging for college hockey teams, it’s even more challenging for junior hockey teams.”

While the junior teams and college teams can help each other all they want, the the player makes the final decision of where to play in college.

“I think it would be nice having kids play junior (hockey) in Maine and play collegiately in Maine,” Robichaud said. “At the end of the day, we want what’s best for the player. There’s a lot that goes into it: location, education, the financial aspect, the amount of playing time a player will receive at a certain level or school. We want what the player wants and feels good about.”

CUTTING TRAVEL COSTS

While the coaches will still work their normal recruiting grounds, having Tier II teams nearby may allow them to get to know potential recruits better, without as many schools outside of Maine scouting in Lewiston-Auburn and decreasing trips to Massachusetts.

The Nordiques and the Thunder being outposts in their respective league also might limit the recruiting of some of the hockey powerhouses in the New England.

“Right now, if we watch a NCDC game in the Boston area or we go watch the Northeast Generals play down in (Attleboro), anytime we go to those games, I am standing in line next to UMass-Boston, Norwich, Geneseo, Endicott, a lot of the schools we compete against for these kids,” Swallow said. “We will go to a game and we are standing next to six or seven coaches all waiting to talk to the same kid.

“I think that will be nice to go up to Lewiston-Auburn, maybe instead of being in line with seven other schools, maybe there’s only a handful of us there, because UMass-Boston, instead of driving up to Lewiston they can drive to Attleboro because it’s a lot closer to them.”

The Twin Cities’ Tier II teams also will allow the state’s college coaches to check on players during the season as most of the college coaches go out to league showcases at the beginning of the season like the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota that was held from Sept. 18-21.

“Our recruiting budget for Division III is very good, but it’s not endless,” Dumont said who was also an assistant coach for the Maineiacs in the 2009-10 season. “So, we have to make sure we spend our money wisely.”

The college coaches will still go to the junior hockey showcases, such as those last month held in Marlboro, Massachusetts, by the USPHL, and Blaine, Minnesota, by the NAHL. And they’ll still go great distances to recruit players in places like Connecticut, New Jersey, Alaska or Amarillo, Texas, when they need to.

“I don’t worry about working hard,” MacDonald said. “If I have to drive to Connecticut, New York or New Jersey, that’s my job. The benefit (of the Tier II teams) I see is exposing a lot of players and people to the great state of Maine.”

And, of course, the college coaches like being close to home as much as possible.

“It’s a great brand of hockey and I would rather be going there in Lewiston than Attleboro, Mass., every weekend,” Dumont said.


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