St. Dom’s sophomore Dominic Chasse fires a shot on goal during the Class A state championship in March. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

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

If a player is good enough to play Tier II junior hockey, his high school hockey coach will probably encourage him to do so.

The inaugural seasons of the Maine Nordiques and the Twin City Thunder’s National Collegiate Development Conference team have brought two Tier II junior hockey programs to Lewiston-Auburn. How do high school coaches in the area and throughout the state feel about the effect that it will have on high school hockey?

“I’ve always taken the position that I hope I am not their last coach, I am just one of their coaches,” Lewiston coach James Belleau said. “We’ve had some proven success of kids who played high school hockey at Lewiston High School and have moved on to prep schools and to junior programs.

“I think (it’s) for each individual player and their family, their advisers, to assess what’s best for them. Certainly, that’s not something we as a hockey program want to hold back. I have my own thoughts, but it’s based on individual players and individual points in their high school careers.”

High school coaches are, however, concerned about players leaving high school hockey early for the Maine Nordiques’, Twin City Thunder’s or other organizations’ Tier III junior hockey teams or midget hockey teams.

The Nordiques’ organization has the Tier III L/A Nordiques of the North American 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) and the Maine Nordiques Development Program U18 team, which is based in New Jersey but will be moving to Lewiston in 2020.

The Thunder have a Tier III team in the USPHL Premier League and, new in 2019-20, the Twin City Lightning, an 18U midget program that plays in the USPHL 18U league.

Belleau said he’s not opposed to either organization, but rather where hockey is heading, in general, when it comes to high school-aged players.

“I think this a function of the USA Hockey model,” Belleau said. “It’s not a problem with Lewiston and Auburn only, it’s an issue facing the sport of hockey throughout the country. It’s a function of the USA Hockey model.

“Does it have a potential impact on high school hockey? Of course, it does, but I am not a person who just thinks solely through a funnel in one direction. It’s the reality this is happening in Lewiston and Auburn, it will probably have an impact on high school hockey, but it’s one of those things it’s going to be here for the long-term, this model is not going to change.”

Lewiston head coach Jamie Belleau, left, and his assistants draw up plans and pump up their players during a timeout late in the 2018 Class A state championship, which the Blue Devils won. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Junior hockey and midget hockey teams play as many as 50-60 games, while Maine high school teams are limited to 18 regular-season games and up to four playoff games, along with five exhibition dates on which they can schedule as many games as they want.

Dom Chasse, who helped lead St. Dom’s to a Class A state title in March, Ben Lane-Robichaud of Edward Little and Nathan Marcotte of Leavitt/Poland/Oak Hill/Gray-New Gloucester are expected to play for the Twin City Lightning program this season. The Lightning have four other players who have high school hockey eligibility remaining.

The main goal of the Lightning is to advance players to the Thunder’s Premier League and NCDC teams.

“The level of play (in midget hockey), the competition is a lot more stiff across the board, in terms of players they are playing against,” said Ben Gray, the owner of the Twin City Lighting as well as the Maine Moose program, which includes a midget team. “A lot of those kids (already have NCAA Division I commitments) or guys that are looking to be committed.

“I think the big thing is the level of competition across the board. I think at that level, you see teams of four lines that can all play. In high school, you have Lewiston and a couple of schools that have good squads, but a line of guys and that’s about it.”

As a member of the Lightning this season, Chasse has committed to Utica College in Utica, New York, one of the top Division III men’s hockey teams in the country.

Three players who have high school eligibility remaining are expected to play for the L/A Nordiques: Will Fletcher of St. Dom’s, Nick Pomerleau of Lewiston and Bradley McMains of South Portland/Freeport/Waynflete.

Maine high school hockey has been dealing with Tier III junior programs for decades, whether it was the Great Northern Snow Devils of Biddeford in the early 1990s, the Portland Junior Pirates of Biddeford and Saco from 2000-16, or the Maine Moose’s junior hockey team, which played in the International Junior Hockey League and the Northern States Junior Hockey League from 2006-14.

What has changed is the existence of full-season midget teams, which Gray began to notice half a decade ago.

“Probably five years ago, you seen a lot of kids leave the state or looking for stiffer competition,” Gray said. “… You could see the writing on the wall coming down the pipe.”

Full-season midget programs for high school-aged kids are especially popular in the Midwest, in states such as Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as nontraditional hockey markets like California, Texas, Florida and Arizona.

The full-season teams are starting to creep into New England.

“The Michigan (model) is creeping in. In the perfect world you would have the Minnesota model (playing for the local youth program and local high school),” Twin City Thunder NCDC coach Doug Friedman said. “Families have a lot of choices to make. It’s tough, it puts high school coaches in a tough spot on what their retention is going to be with their players and all that … Dom (Chasse), Ben (Lane-Robichaud) and kids like that.

“It’s impacting the local schools, but you have a player like Andy Moore (a Thunder NCDC draft pick) where we had a number of discussions with him about what he wanted to do and what might be a good path for him. He really wanted to stay and finish up his senior year at Greely despite Jake MacDonald, one of his linemates, going off to prep school. You respect his decision, and it’s good to see someone who wants to finish out their high school. We will still work with him this fall and have him until high school starts.”

Mount Saint Charles Academy in Woonsocket, Rhode Island — which has won the most high school state championships with 32, six ahead of St. Dom’s and nine ahead of Lewiston and Waterville — will have U14, U15, U16 and U18 midget teams in addition to their varsity high school team this season.

Former NHL goalie and current NBC Sports broadcaster Brian Boucher played for Mount Saint Charles and had the idea of bringing midget hockey to the school. The midget teams attract players from throughout North America. Gulliame Richard of Quebec, a Thunder futures draft pick and University of Maine verbal commit, is on the Mount Saint Charles U16 team. Cole Crusberg-Roseen, who attended Maine Nordiques training camp and is committed to UMass-Amherst, is on the U18 team.

The Nordiques organization is also looking at talent from all over for their Maine Nordiques Development Program.

“If there was someone from Maine at that level, and that’s something they are interested in, we would love to have them,” Maine Nordiques director of recruitment and advancement Cam Robichaud said. “As I said, it’s recruiting the best 20 (players) from all over the world.”

Gray said his programs are providing Maine players an option to stay in-state.

“Look, what our program does or (another) program does is why these kids are leaving (high school),” Gray said. “For Dom (Chasse), he was looking (at programs) outside the state, regardless if we did anything or not. We are able to keep a kid in-state, develop him here without him going out of state, that’s a win-win for him.

“Not all high school coaches see that. A lot of them do, and some of the better coaches are the ones calling us to tell us to take a look at their guy or keep an eye out, or (asking) what we think on certain kids.”

Edward Little coach Norm Gagne said he understands these junior and midget organizations have bills to pay, and do so through tuition that can range from $5,000-$12,000 per player.

“I think there’s a lot of money to be made,” Gagne said. “There’s a lot of money going into these programs, and you can’t blame those people, it’s a business to them. They say, ‘Hey, what we did to the juniors, let’s get more teams at the lower levels and work them up.’

“That’s the key, it’s really worth it to them. Not only that, it has developed a lot of junior teams at a lot of levels. You got the top level, you got the medium level and you got the lower level.”

HIGH SCHOOL STILL PART OF DEVELOPMENTAL MODEL?

While junior and midget hockey teams face better competition, are they really better for players than high school?

High school hockey may offer some players something midget and junior teams can’t ultimately offer: large amounts of playing time.

“I can name seven or eight kids who left early that lost interest in the game and never finished playing for four years because they are so disenchanted,” Falmouth coach Deron Barton said. “They go to a program that they think they can play at, and they run the risk of not getting minutes, not getting playing time.

“If you don’t get playing time, I don’t care how good your schedule is, how are you going to develop if you aren’t on the ice? These are what a lot of kids experience leaving early. These midget programs that are going to have full-season teams, they are promising kids a lot of things.

“Maybe the schedule is going to be competitive, but they are going to be playing in a defined age bracket. I believe your development is going to be limited based on who you are competing against and who you are playing with. If it’s a two-year window, opposed to a four-year window (like high school hockey), I think the four-year window is going to develop a player faster. Now, the argument back is you are only playing 20 games, Coach, and five exhibitions. Well, that’s true.”

While leaving early hasn’t worked out for some Falmouth players, one player who has benefited is Ben Freeman. Freeman played two years for Barton at Falmouth, then three years of prep school hockey at Northfield Mount Hermon in Gill, Massachusetts, and a year in the USPHL. He is now in his senior season at the University of Connecticut, which plays Division I hockey in Hockey East.

Barton uses Isac Nordstrom as an example of a player who played all four years of high school hockey and still found success.

Nordstrom played for Falmouth from 2012-2015, where he was a member of the 2013 and 2014 Class A state championship teams and won the Travis Roy Award in 2015 as a senior. He then played the 2015-16 season at the Kents Hills School for Friedman before spending a year in the USPHL and then committing to New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, where he is now a junior.

Another Falmouth player who had success after playing four seasons of high school hockey is defenseman Jake Grade, who played a year in the Eastern Hockey League and is in his senior season as a solid contributor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Edward Little High School boys head hockey coach Norm Gagne runs drills during the first day of practice before the 2017-18 season. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Gagne, who has been coaching since the 1970s, said success beyond the high school level is about more than the length of a season or playing time.

“Each level you go to, it’s going to get harder and harder,” Gagne said. “I tell kids if you have aspirations of playing in college, it starts when you are a freshman, you have to work hard. A lot of these kids haven’t got that mentality — there’s a certain mentality, not just physical, but mental toughness, perseverance. You got to be able to handle failure and you have to be able to deal with those things.”

Both the Thunder and Nordiques understand where the high school coaches are coming from, but say they are giving opportunities to kids who want to go farther in their hockey careers.

“I think there will always be a place for high school hockey,” Robichaud, who played for St. Dom’s and Edward Little, said. “At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual athlete. Some players are looking for more competition, more training, more exposure. Some players want to play for their schools and in front of their peers and win a high school state championship.”

Sam Frechette played for the Tier III NA3HL L/A Nordiques last year, forgoing his senior season of high school hockey where played at Lewiston the previous three seasons. He started this season with the L/A Nordiques before recently getting called up to the Maine Nordiques. Ron Morin photo

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