Edward Little’s Jackson Keene is all smiles after the Red Eddies beat St. Dom’s 7-2 for the Class A state championship in March 2004. Sun Journal file photo

In 2003, the Edward Little boys hockey team crashed the exclusive Class A champions party. A year later, the Red Eddies were the talk of that same party.

The 2003 championship team, the school’s first, will always hold a special place in the heart of the Red Eddies program, especially considering Edward Little was only the sixth different school to claim the title since champions were first crowned in the late 1920s, according to the Maine Principals’ Association’s website.

That 2004 EL team, however, holds a place among the state’s more dominant title-winning teams.

The Red Eddies finished the season 23-1, capping it off with a dominating 7-2 victory over St. Dom’s in the Class A state final.

“We had a large group of seniors in 2004. So a big group of our team that had done it the year before, we had them back,” said Kyle Smith, a senior forward and captain. “(Our motivation) was proving that (2003) wasn’t a fluke. … Having accomplished that goal in our junior year, the group of seniors kind of wanted to go out on top. We didn’t want ’03 to be kind of like the peak of that career, if you will.”

“They had somewhat of a target on their back,” Jamie Belleau, Edward Little’s head coach for both state championship seasons, said. “Everybody had known they won it the year before, how successful we were, and so anything short of getting to the state championship game in ’04 — with Kyle’s class, which was him and about 11 other seniors — was going to be a disappointment.”

One of those seniors, forward Colby Gilbert, laughs at the assertion of a target on the 2003-04 team’s back.

“We never looked behind us so we never saw it,” Gilbert said. “We played every game the same — to win.”

The Red Eddies nearly did win all of their games, the only blemish being a close loss to Bangor.

Edward Little’s Colby Gilbert gets a shot past St. Dom’s goalie Brady Blackman as Gilbert’s teammate Ryan Binette (36) and St. Dom’s Steve Nadeau (6) tussle near the goal during the third period of the 2004 Class A state championship at the Colisee in Lewiston. Sun Journal file photo

EL’s starting goalie, Kris Bennett, said he had the worst performance of his high school career in that game. Gilbert remembers breaking a skate blade in warmups and needing to wear some rental skates — that was about the only thing that could slow down Gilbert during that season, during which he amassed 96 points (46 goals, 50 assists). He played the following season with the Lewiston Maineiacs.

Smith, who won the Travis Roy Award that year, barely bested his linemate with 105 points (58 goals, 47 assists).

The loss to the Rams was a bit of a wake-up call for the team, Belleau said.

The second-year head coach was more than happy to serve up some eye-opening reality checks of his own, Bennett said.

Edward Little’s Kyle Smith looks for teammate Colby Gilbert heading toward the net during a round robin hockey tournament at the Central Maine Civic Center in 2004. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

“We played for a head coach who expected our best and enforced discipline. The policy for away games basically read, show up for the bus 15 minutes early or you’re considered late and the consequence for first occurrence was to sit out a period,” Bennett said. “The ’04 season we recruited Ben Levasseur to play as a backup goalie, who hadn’t played in quite a few years and never intended to play varsity. Well, I was late for the bus headed to Mt. Ararat, and it doesn’t matter who you are on the team when discipline is enforced. Ben got varsity experience and I think he was credited with the shutout and win as the starter.”

The Red Eddies, who were riding high and still wearing the target, received another wake-up call late in the regular season at Brewer. The Eddies won the game, but their play wasn’t as sharp as it should have been.

“I remember thinking in the locker room — it was our last league game of the year before the playoffs, we had a great record, and we were up in Brewer, I think it was our last game — I remember thinking that they were getting a little comfortable,” Belleau said. “We didn’t really show up to play. And, of course, when you’ve won a lot of games, maybe back then you might say, ‘Well, what was the big deal?’ but the big deal was not getting comfortable.

“The playoff format changed a little bit, but it was one-and-done. So your regular-season record goes out the window and you could lose one game. I remember reminding them of the importance of competing day in and day out, because as good as your record might be, once this league’s over and the playoffs start, it’s one game and anything can happen in one game, so you got be at your best. I remember standing in that locker room up in Brewer having that conversation.”

That message was heard by the Red Eddies, who ripped Brunswick 7-1 in the East regional quarterfinals, then downed Mt. Ararat and Travis Roy Award finalist Mark Rogers 5-2 in the regional semifinals.

“Mt. Ararat was overmatched overall, and the MTA coach at the time, Mike Abreu, did his best 1990s-2000s New Jersey Devils impression, having the team play a neutral zone trap,” recalls current Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse coach AJ Kavanaugh, who was at that game after graduating from Mt. Ararat two years earlier. “He moved Mark Rogers back to defense, and Mark spent most of the game chipping it out of the Eagles zone, and that really helped them keep it close against the obvious powerhouse EL.”

Lewiston’s Colby Dufour, top, and Edward Little’s Ryan Binette collide during the Class A East regional final in March 2004. The Red Eddies defeated the Blue Devils, 3-2, and went on to claim their second consecutive state championship. Sun Journal file photo

Edward Little got a challenge in the East final from rival Lewiston, the program that, a season earlier, Belleau told the Eddies they would need to get past to realize greatness.

“Any time you were playing Lewiston back then, and I was coaching EL, we knew it was going to be a battle. And it was a battle. It was like a state championship game,” said Belleau, who has since won four state championships (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020) as Lewiston’s coach. “You get battle-tested any time you were playing Lewiston back then. And it was a good game to have, given the success that we had all season, that they persevered in a high-intensity, high-pressure environment against Lewiston High School, having won a state championship the year before. So, obviously, Lewiston was gunning for us, and it was a battle.”

Edward Little prevailed by the same 3-2 score it beat Lewiston the year before.

The more-dominant defeat of St. Dom’s (7-2) in the state final at the Colisee was a fitting finale for the ’04 team, which Gilbert said was special because of the players’ history playing with one another.

“We all grew up playing youth hockey together, so the years prior to 2004 was what really developed the team,” he said. “Everyone knew their role. We worked hard on and off the ice. Hockey season for us was year-round.”

Belleau credited the work of his predecessors, head coach Dave Boucher and assistants Tom St. Onge and Larry Morin, with building up the Edward Little program. By 2004, the team boasted three all-state players (Smith, Gilbert and defenseman Mert Gould) and three more all-East players (Bennett, Matt Couturier and Joel Pepin, who was a linemate of Smith and Gilbert). And there was more talent beyond that. Gilbert said that Eddies team had three first lines.

“What made that team special was that amount of talent amongst that class that had experienced success, but it was team-first, not individual,” Belleau, who coached Edward Little from 2002-03 to 2004-05, said. “And they were close friends. And that’s what I remember about that team.”

Cony High School goalie Mike Lovaglio blocks a shot by Edward Little’s Kyle Smith in the second period of a 2004 game. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

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