Whether it’s reluctantly finishing the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers or singing along to “Jingle Bell Rock” for only the 10th time so far, early December has a way of turning one’s thoughts to Christmas and the traditions that go with it.

For many local high school coaches, athletes and fans, the tradition includes participating in or watching holiday basketball and hockey tournaments. But the COVID-19 pandemic has already wiped out many holiday traditions, and the tournaments are not immune.

Last year, the St. Dominic Academy Christmas Classic invitational hockey tournament drew teams from all over New England to compete in a three-day event at Norway Savings Bank Arena hosted by the St. Dom’s boys hockey team. In addition to the Saints and in-state rivals Edward Little, Lewiston and Cape Elizabeth, five out-of-state schools from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut battled it out in one of the top hockey tournaments in the Northeast.

Noah Pratt, right, of St. Dom’s pressures Wesley Clements of Edward Little High School during the Saint Dominic Academy Hockey Christmas Classic in Auburn in Dec. 2019. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

Last month, governors throughout the Northeast agreed to suspend interstate competition for school and youth hockey teams due to the virus. St. Dom’s athletic director J.P. Yorkey said given the size and scope of the tournament, it would have been difficult to pull off regardless.

“A lot of work goes into planning and organizing it as an eight-team championship tournament from each New England state,” Yorkey said in an email to the Sun Journal. “We had to make a decision relatively early and the majority of the schools couldn’t commit, and with how things are now in Maine, we couldn’t play anyway.”

St. Dom’s boys hockey coach Dan D’Auteuil said the tournament’s cancellation hurts his team in a number of ways.

“It’s sad,” he said. “The Christmas Classic is basically half of our fundraising for the year. It’s anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 a year that we raise from it.”

The money raised from the tournament helps pay for trips to play in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but it’s not the financial loss that concerns D’Auteuil.

“It may work out to kind of a wash (financially) because we’re not going to spend the money,” he said, “but it’s not about spending the money. It’s about the experience these kids are going to lose. With the Christmas tournament, they’re playing kids and meeting kids from all over New England. The second day of the tournament we put on a big breakfast at the school and all of the teams come and all of the kids are in the cafeteria together, and it’s a neat experience for all of the kids to sit with each other and see that they’re the same.”

The pandemic and the resulting delay in the start of winter sports by the Maine Principals’ Association forced cancellation of a number of local events that are annual staples of Thanksgiving weekend, such as the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame Gippers Basketball Tip-Off Classic and the Jake Lord Play it Safe Foundation alumni basketball games at Spruce Mountain High School.

Grace Fontaine of Edward Little High School drives against Lexy Grondin of Poland Regional High School during the first game of the Gipper’s 10th annual Basketball Tip-Off Classic in Auburn in Nov. 2019. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

Jenna Winokur started the alumni games at Spruce, which are usually held the Friday after Thanksgiving, in 2012 in honor of her late brother Jake and as a fundraiser for the foundation she started in his name. Lord was a star athlete and 2011 Jay High School graduate who died by suicide later that year as a result of head injuries he suffered while playing sports in school.

While the games weren’t held this year, the foundation was still able to raise over $2,400 through an online auction, which Winokur had started last year to run in conjunction with the games. Additional money was raised through t-shirt sales and in-kind donations.

“We did really well. It was a great way to still host a fundraiser for the foundation and bring the community together, but in a safe way,” said Winokur.

“I am incredibly impressed with the generosity of our community in a time when everything is so uncertain,” she said.

Alumni players from Jay and Livermore Falls schools compete in the sixth annual alumni and exhibition basketball games held in support of the Jake Lord Play It Safe Foundation in 2018 at Spruce Mountain High School in Jay. Livermore Falls Advertiser file photo

But something was definitely missing this year besides basketball, and Winokur is determined to resume the tradition eventually.

“The basketball game has always been a time for healing for me personally and an opportunity to get our community together and to remember my brother and honor his love of sports and his community spirit,” she said. “It’s always been a day I really look forward to to bring the community together in his memory. That was definitely missed this year.”

“As soon as it’s safe,” she added, “we would definitely want to bring the games back because there’s nothing quite like bringing the community together on the day after Thanksgiving, seeing old friends, and just getting together for a cause that’s really near and dear to my heart.”


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