The Central Maine Community College men’s hockey team gets ready for a game against the University of Maine club hockey team on Jan. 26 at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn. RAM Sport Photography

AUBURN — The Central Maine Community College men’s club hockey team is joining the New England College Hockey Association (NECHA) beginning in the 2020-21 season, the college announced this week. The club will play in the league’s Division III Colonial North Division.

With support from athletic director Dave Gonyea, the club finally has a home on the ice.

“It’s great to have a conference to call home,” Gonyea said in a CMCC press release. “All of our other sports have had the pleasure of competing in the Yankee (Small College) Conference, but our hockey program has been independent since the beginning. It’s exciting to be a part of this great league and to have this opportunity to compete at a high level. Coach (Matt) Buotte and the team have done a great job of creating a good image for the school and putting a competitive product on the ice. We are proud of where the program is headed.”

NECHA, a conference within the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) — which is the governing body for club college hockey — was founded in 1982 and currently ices 38 teams across three divisions.

“This is a great day for our program,” Mustangs coach Matt Buotte said in the press release. “It has been a really long road to get here. It’s exciting to take the step and get our foot in the door. It’s a great league with great competition. We have been competing against these same teams while playing our independent schedule, so to have the games count in the standings makes it that much more special. We are thrilled for this exciting opportunity.”

The team’s placement in Colonial North lays the groundwork for some highly-anticipated matchups against natural rivals. The team will slot in with cross-river rival Bates, as well as Dartmouth, Colby-Sawyer, University of New England, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and another local rival in Thomas College.

The Mustangs went 4-4 in the 2019-20 against opponents in the NECHA. For the season, CMCC ended the season 7-12-1 overall. The Mustangs had eight local players on the roster last year in Jacob Strout (Lewiston, Lewiston High School), Riley Lavoie (Poland, Hebron Academy), Austin Taylor (Turner, Poland/Leavitt/Oak Hill/Gray-New Gloucester), Parker Springer (Greene, Poland/Leavitt/Oak Hill/Gray-New Gloucester), Ben Feldman (Auburn, Edward Little), Brock Geoffrey (Lewiston, Lewiston High School), Noah Buinskas (Lisbon, Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse) and Isaiah Dubois (Minot, Hebron Academy).

“To be in the same division as Thomas is incredible for ACHA hockey in this area,” Buotte also said the press release. “The games are always so exciting with so much at stake. We can’t wait to be playing these games under the bright lights. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ve had such great rivalries, not just with Thomas but all of these teams — it’s just an exciting time to be a fan of not only CM but great hockey in the northeast.”

Thomas College won the NECHA Colonial Conference Championship with several local ties on the roster  in Ryley Austin (Lisbon, Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse), Ryan Kappelmann (Auburn, Hebron Academy), Hunter Hughes (Lewiston, St. Dominic Academy), Ben Gosselin (Lewiston, St. Dominic Academy), Thomas Arps (Monmouth, Cony/Monmouth/Hall-Dale) and Miloslav “Gaston” Fuksa (Czech Republic, St. Dominic Academy).  Thomas lost to University of New Haven in the first round of the ACHA Division III Atlantic Regional Tournament.

The top teams in the regular season compete in an annual postseason tournament in Keane, New Hampshire each February. The champions in the NECHA playoff qualify for spots at the ACHA’s regional tournament, where the top teams can then compete at the national level. CMCC will enter the season as a probationary squad, meaning games count in the standings but the team is not postseason-eligible to ensure competitive balance. Once the club has completed one season at the probationary membership status the team will become a full member for the following season, with complete playoff eligibility.

Membership status had been a difficult process for the Mustangs, who were unsettled by coaching turnover and discipline issues at the onset of the program, according to the press release. To be a full NECHA member, teams must fulfill a stringent list of obligations, including various scheduling commitments, as well as budget, ice availability and coaching requirements.

The Mustangs began the men’s hockey program starting with the 2016-17 season.

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