Richard Fortin had just about half his hockey team present for individual drills and workouts this week. The first-year head coach of the Capital Region Hawks, Fortin’s team features players from Maranacook, Winthrop, Lawrence, Madison, and Spruce Mountain high schools. But Lawrence and Madison are in Somerset County, which spent most of the week in the yellow designation in the state Department of Education’s return to school color coded system, and thus unable to participate. Two more players from Spruce Mountain are unable to join the team because this week, the school announced it will not take part in winter sports this season.

“We had around 12, 14 skaters today,” Fortin said after Tuesday’s team workout at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault. “That’s about half our squad. It’s a little tough to evaluate the team and figure out chemistry. In fact, it’s impossible. The first thing you do when the season starts, you start to see chemistry. You see a couple forwards who work well together. You see defensemen who work well. I’m trying not to do that, and it feels unnatural.”

While high school winter sports in Maine faces numerous challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, ice hockey faces perhaps more challenges than most sports. The prevalence of co-op teams in the sport, and the dependency on off-campus facilities, many of which are unavailable this season, makes competing in an already challenging sport even more so.

Fifteen of the 35 boys ice hockey teams in the state — 43 percent — are co-op teams of players from two or more schools. Eleven of the 16 girls ice hockey teams — 69 percent— are co-op teams. Coaches like Fortin and athletic directors must juggle the various pandemic rules at multiple schools. For example, with Winslow unable to participate this past week, the Kennebec RiverHawks co-op team it shares with Waterville delayed the start of workouts until next week.

The Cony hockey team practices Wednesday at the Ice Vault in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

With colleges and prep schools across the state closing their facilities to the general public, including Colby, Bowdoin, the University of Southern Maine, University of Maine, and Kents Hill school, many teams had to find new rinks. In central Maine, Bill Boardman, the manager of the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell, came to the rescue.

“It has been a monumental challenge, and we’ve been planning for months to make sure everybody gets ice time,” Boardman said.

The Ice Vault already was the home rink for Cony, Gardiner, and the Winslow/Gardiner/Cony girls co-op team. For this season, the arena will also be the home of the RiverHawks, Messalonskee, and Capital Region.

“Bill Boardman has been excellent in working with us to ensure our student athletes have access to ice for practices and games,” Waterville athletic director Heidi Bernier said.

Messalonskee and Kennebec were left without a hockey home when Colby’s new arena was closed to off campus use. Both immediately reached out to Boardman. Messalonskee athletic director Chad Foye said the current travel rules limited his school’s rink options. Schools are currently allowed to travel within their county or adjacent counties for athletic travel. For Messalonskee and the RiverHawks, that meant either the Ice Vault, the only option in Kennebec County, or rinks in the Lewiston-Auburn area in Androscoggin County. Finding ice tine at a Bangor-area rink, for example, wasn’t an option.

“The rule for travel limits what we can do,” Foye said.

Rink managers at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston and the Norway Savings Bank in Auburn did not respond to inquiries regarding increased interest in using their facilities. Jesse Simko, the rink manager at Midcoast Recreation Center in Rockport, said he has not received any requests for ice time from high schools outside his area. Currently, Camden Hills Regional High School and the Ice Cats, a team consisting of players from other area schools, are the only high school-age teams using the facility, and it’s unlikely the Ice Cats play this season, Simko said.

“We’re about an hour from everybody. Maybe that’s why,” Simko said about the lack of ice time requests. “If we’ve got the availability, and it works and we can keep everybody (socially) distanced, sure, we’d welcome anybody.”

Cony hockey players exit the locker rooms to take the ice during practice Wednesday at the Ice Vault in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Capital Region learned this summer it would be unable to play at Kents Hill this season.

“We have a strong booster club. They got on it right away,” Maranacook athletic director Brant Remington said. “We’ve been lucky.”

“We were sort of unsure, to be honest with you. We looked at rinks in the Lewiston area, but we were concerned we be unable to fit in there. Bill wanted to make sure everybody who wants to play can play,” Fortin said.

A rule instituted for this season by the Maine Principals’ Association limiting teams to three hours of on-ice practice per week helped free up time for the newcomers to the Ice Vault.

“Because of the three days per week rule, we were able to rotate some teams around. That opened up six hours right off that top, and that’s two teams there,” Boardman said.

The five boys teams using the Ice Vault this winter agreed to create a pod, Remington said. The teams will each practice at the rink and play games there exclusively, against each other. Any costs associated with busing players from Waterville and Winslow to the Ice Vault approximately 20 miles south throughout this season is offset by the elimination of long trips to play Presque Isle and Houlton/Hodgdon, which often require an overnight stay, Bernier said.

Covid-19 will loom over the entire season. Recently, the MPA and state agencies pushed the start of the high school winter sports season practices from Monday to Jan.4, with games coming later in January, and wrestling is on hold until at least late February. While a yellow designation for a county shuts down all athletics, some schools have delayed the start of workouts and drills as an added precaution. Messalonskee plans to begin this week, Foye said.

“Coach is doing a great job. They’re holding virtual meetings,” Foye said. “The kids are handling it ok. I was so impressed with this fall, how the kids stuck with it. They really worked hard.”

A green designation now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Capital Region can get its players from Lawrence and Madison back now that Somerset County has improved to green from the yellow designation it held for more than a month, but should Kennebec County slip to yellow, it would shut down the season, as would an outbreak at either Maranacook or Winthrop.

“We’re not planning on playing any games until mid-January,” Fortin said. “We’ll be lucky if we can play at that point.”

All high school hockey teams know that’s out of their hands. They find ice time where they can, and they work out with dropping the puck for competition the ultimate goal.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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