Adam Flynn, head coach of Biddeford cooperative girls ice hockey team, draws drills on a white board during practice on Tuesday at Biddeford Ice Arena. In addition to Biddeford High, the co-op team currently includes players from Thornton Academy and Wells. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, high school officials have stressed the importance of letting their athletes play. Perhaps no other sport embraces that philosophy more than girls ice hockey.

No sport in Maine has a higher percentage of cooperative teams (69 percent) than girls ice hockey. Of the state’s 16 high school teams, 11 are cooperative programs. And often it’s not just two schools combining to form a team. In many cases it’s at least four.

That is a way to grow the sport, according to coaches and athletic directors. Regular-season games for the 2021-22 season begin as soon as Friday, with the state championship scheduled for Troubh Ice Arena in Portland on Feb. 19.

“If the girls want to play, they ought to have a place to play,” said Adam Flynn, the head coach of the Biddeford/Thornton Academy/Wells/Sanford cooperative team. “I think girls hockey, in general, is moving in the right direction. There seems to be a lot more interest. Even though locally the numbers might dip, I think in a few years it will mirror boys’ hockey where more schools have their own teams.”

Tim Spear, the athletic director at Gorham, said cooperative teams are keeping girls ice hockey alive.

“I think if we didn’t have co-ops, girls ice hockey probably wouldn’t be a sponsored sport,” he said. “It would be for elite travel programs only. It gives those kids (from other schools) an opportunity to play. You’ve got some kids who are really good players, and then you’ve got kids who have skated for exactly two weeks.”

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Coming off the 2020-21 winter season, where teams played a reduced, and geographic, schedule because of the pandemic, it’s difficult to assess where participation numbers sit this winter. Some schools are noting larger rosters than in the past, others lower.

But more schools appear to be involved. This year’s cooperative teams involve skaters from 45 schools, according to the Maine Principals’ Association hockey bulletin. In the 2019-20 season – the last season to involve a championship tournament – there were 36 schools involved.

In many instances, just one athlete from a school may be involved. The hockey community refers to this as the “good neighbor” co-op. Lincoln Academy, for example, has joined the Mt. Ararat/Morse/Lisbon cooperative and is providing two skaters, according to Mt. Ararat Athletic Director Geoff Godo.

Members of the Biddeford cooperative girls ice hockey team practice Tuesday at Biddeford Ice Arena. Regular-season games for the 2021-22 season begin as soon as Friday, with the state championship scheduled for Troubh Ice Arena in Portland on Feb. 19. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I think any time we can find the opportunity to let kids participate, most schools are happy to oblige and help when they can,” said Godo. “The kids are getting to play and that’s the No. 1 priority.”

Godo noted that participation numbers are down “a little” but said it is difficult to know why. “It’s hard to tell if it’s a sports trend or another COVID consequence,” he said.

Scott Rousseau, the coach of the Cheverus/Old Orchard Beach/Kennebunk/Windham cooperative, said “it’s a similar issue to what’s happening in other sports. Kids are specializing. And you’re seeing a lot of (hockey players) being pulled to play on junior teams or prep programs. So that’s diluting our numbers as well.”

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Brunswick, one of the five stand-alone programs, has 26 players in its program this winter. Rousseau’s group has 24, 19 from Cheverus. Four players are from Kennebunk, two of whom are beginners, according to Rousseau. “You want to talk about dedication,” he said. “We practice at 5:30 a.m., twice a week. They want to play hockey.”

Flynn notes that his team has 23 skaters, including 10 from Biddeford, 11 from Thornton Academy and two from Wells. Currently there are no Sanford players on the team.

“We’ve had an influx of Thornton players,” said Flynn. “I think we’re nearing the point where they might be wondering why we’re still wearing orange-and-black (Biddeford’s colors) instead of maroon-and-gold.”

Adam Flynn, head coach for Biddeford cooperative girls ice hockey team, watches his team perform drills during practice Tuesday at Biddeford Ice Arena. The team has 23 skaters, including 10 from Biddeford High, 11 from Thornton Academy and two from Wells. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete/South Portland cooperative has 17 skaters: eight from Cape, five from Waynflete and four from South Portland. That number, said Coach Bob Mills, is a little low. “It’s hard to say why,” he said. “We lost one player to prep school from last year. High school sports is cyclical.”

Falmouth, a stand-alone program, has 14 on the roster, which is low for the Navigators. “That’s just the way it is sometimes,” said Coach Rob Carrier. “Just a handful of years ago, we had 18, 19 kids. We’ve had years with 20.”

There are challenges to cooperative teams. Flynn said scheduling practices is sometimes hard because not all schools are dismissed at the same time. Communication can be difficult at times if players are scattered among a lot of schools.

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But the benefits are strong. As Rousseau and Mills said, rosters are deeper, deep enough to allow junior varsity games as well. That gives young, developing players a chance to play in a competitive situation.

Plus, said Mills, it brings students from different schools together. “Players are able to make friendships with kids from other schools,” he said.

That is a huge factor with the Cheverus cooperative team.

“There’s never been much of a distinction on our team about who comes from what school,” said Clare MacDonald, a senior defenseman from Cheverus. “You come into the locker room and everyone is your teammate.”

She said being on a cooperative team allowed her to meet “one of my best friends.”

That would be Emily Tucker, a senior defenseman and the only player from Old Orchard Beach this year. “I would have never met her if she wasn’t on the hockey team,” MacDonald said.

When she was a freshman, Tucker was simply looking for a way to play her favorite sport. “Our school checked with Cheverus and they agreed to it,” Tucker said. “From there, I just started going along with them. That first year I was very scared, not knowing anyone at the time. But it was a good opportunity for me. I was able to meet a lot of new friends I wouldn’t have met. And some have become my best friends.”

There are challenges, said Tucker. Sometimes she arrives late at a practice (the team also practices in the afternoon some days) because Old Orchard Beach dismisses students 45 minutes after Cheverus. But, she said, “This is an opportunity to let me play.”

MacDonald said the team does a lot of team bonding activities away from the rink, to bring everyone together. “It does take a lot of work,” she said. “But we want to make sure everyone feels like a player first, and their school comes second.”


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