Edward Little’s Marius Morneau takes the puck down the ice with Lewiston’s Tyler Marcoux following close behind him during the Class A North boys hockey semifinal in March 2019 at the Colisee in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

A potential problem turned into a step toward the future for boys hockey in Maine.

And now Class A is playing without North and South regions this season.

There were 18 teams in Class A last year, but two programs folded (Lawrence/Skowhegan and Massabesic/Bonny Eagle/Old Orchard Beach) and three more dropped down to Class B, where their enrollment numbers are a better fit (Cheverus, Cony/Monmouth/Hall-Dale and Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse). 

That brought the number of Class A programs to an uneven but not-so-unlucky 13. 

“So now, all of a sudden, we’re sitting in an ice hockey meeting and trying to do the classification, and making sure everything is balanced, and we only had 13 schools,” Maine Principals’ Association Executive Director Mike Burnham said. “So somebody said, ‘Well, what if we were to do what lacrosse has already done and have one state-wide division, because they do tiered scheduling anyway, so it really doesn’t matter if you’re A or B, North or South.'” 

The new state-wide Class A is a welcome change for many of the coaches. 

“Overall, I think it’s good. I think it makes high school hockey more competitive,” Scarborough coach Jake Brown said. “I think the more competitive we can get the league the better we’ll be in the long run. So I think overall it was a good change. I think it’s going to produce a real battle all year long.” 

Lewiston coach Jamie Belleau said the change couldn’t have come at a better time. 

“Ironically, this year the reclassification kind of is at the right time because anyone who thinks that winning the Class A state championship was ever easy before, it wasn’t, but I think it’s going to be even more difficult now,” Belleau said. “I just think you’re going to have a handful of teams, like nine or 10 of them, that have legitimate chances to win and they’re not going to have a game in the playoffs that they might normally think — at least based on records — they should get by. I mean, I think once you get down to eight to nine teams it’s going to be highly competitive. So overall I think it’s a step in the right direction, and certainly good for Class A hockey.” 

Having two regions no longer became a viable option with last year’s Class A North being whittled down to just Bangor, Edward Little, Lewiston, St. Dominic Academy and Windham/Westbrook.

This year’s Class A playoffs will include all 13 teams (including Biddeford/Massabesic/Old Orchard Beach, Falmouth, Lake Region/Fryeburg/Oxford Hills, Marshwood/Traip/Sanford/Noble, Portland/Deering, Scarborough, South Portland/Freeport/Waynflete and Thornton Academy), with the 12th- and 13th-seeded teams facing off in a play-in game for a right to advance to the preliminary round, which will feature The Nos. 5 through 12 teams. The top four teams receive a bye to the quarterfinals. 

“The quarterfinal games are going to be highly competitive,” Belleau said. “In my opinion it’s going to bring a lot of excitement to the Class A playoff run.” 

The regular season won’t look much different because the traditional powers already schedule as many games against other perennial contenders as they can. Some teams will have a few more of those matchups this season. 

It’s once the playoffs begin that the difference will be noticed. 

“It’s really going to be about who stays healthy, who gets hot at the end of the season, and then matchups come playoff time will be a big factor,” Brown said. 

The potential playoff matchups could be quite compelling. No regions means the state championship could pit two rivals against each other, whether it be Lewiston against Edward Little or St. Dom’s, or Biddeford against Thornton. 

“The possibility of a Lewiston-St. Dom’s state championship, which hasn’t been around for years, now exists,” Burnham said. 

Belleau was the head coach of EL when it faced St. Dom’s for the 2004 Class A title. 

“The possibility of that happening (Lewiston vs. a rival) brings some added excitement, particularly for the local teams,” Belleau said. “There’s been enough rivalries over the years, both for the southern teams, the local teams that we play against, that it’s going to really make for an exciting playoff atmosphere and it’s going to make it really competitive.” 

The new playoff format should also mean less chance of a mismatch in the state final. 

“This allows your top teams to play each other. Similar to what just happened in (Class A) football,” Burnham said. 

Competitive hockey is what both Burnham and the coaches believe will help keep players in the high school programs, rather than leaving to play for a prep school or junior hockey program. 

“I know that the MPA is trying to find some way to keep the kids in high school, and playing throughout their four years, and … make it more exciting,” EL coach Norm Gagne said.

“I think high school hockey is something really special,” Brown, who played for Gagne at Lewiston and succeeded him at Scarborough, said. “I think we offer something that no other junior team or prep school can offer. I think playing for your high school, wearing your high school jersey is something really special, and we want to continue that.

“And I think the MPA is really trying to do what’s best for the league.” 

Burnham said this year’s change to Class A is a “step, as we continue to — I don’t know if ‘fix’ is the right word — but we attempt to classify in a way that gives schools an opportunity to be successful.” 

He added that the MPA’s classification committee “is looking at a number of other factors that could maybe be used in classification.” 

“They’re doing that in a non-classification year because they don’t want the pressure of having to make a decision right now, they want to do the research and have those conversations,” Burnham said. 

Gagne and Brown are both hoping that there will be further changes next year or in the near future, including a possible Super 8 tournament — similar to what Massachusetts has — or best-of-three series in the latter rounds of the playoffs. 

“They’re trying, and I think this move that they’ve done this year is going to be a good move for us (Class A schools), and I hope it will work out for the (Class B schools) as well,” Gagne said. 

“I think this is kind of that first step to making high school hockey better,” Brown said. 

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