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Maine Winter Classic is seniors’ last hurrah

03/18/2015, 3:30pm EDT
By Adam Birt

Maine Winter Classic is seniors’ last hurrah

West trumped East in both games – Class A and Class B – of Saturday night’s Winter Maine Classic, back-to-back hockey matchups that bring together Maine’s top senior skaters to benefit the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. The A bout was a neck-and-neck affair that ended in true all-star fashion: 7-6 after a shootout, while the B follow-up proved more lopsided, 7-3 in the end.

Of course, the real winners are the young cancer patients at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital. 2015 is only the Classic’s second year, but it’s already building itself a reputation. Despite not having a major corporate sponsor, as it did last year, the event should ultimately turn over a donation to the Hospital that’s significantly more sizable than even 2014’s.

“There’s some big things going on this weekend with Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital,” said Thornton head coach Jamie Gagnon, “with the Radio-thon. So they have some real large corporate sponsors.

“So the timing of the entire event is tough too; we’ve lost a lot of time with the snowstorms, this winter, so the teams were selected a little late. It kind of came together a little late.”

Perhaps the biggest reason this year’s Classic is expected to improve its donation over last year’s, even in the absence of a major commercial backer, are the players themselves. They individually go in search of sponsors after learning they’ve been selected to represent their school, and a number of them came up big this time around.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to have the players really get involved,” said Gagnon. “Brandon Daigle (Biddeford) brought in over 1500 dollars. Adam Janetti brought in 500, almost another 1000 dollars.

“Right now we’re on pace to meet, if not exceed, our contribution from last year, even without the big sponsor. We gave 6000 dollars last year; I expect, preliminarily, to give one or two thousand dollars more this year.”

The Classic is largely Gagnon’s brainchild, one he modeled after the Lobster Bowl, among Maine high school sports’ proudest traditions. Gagnon had help, naturally; he recruited a number of other coaches to develop and implement the idea, including Scarborough head Norm Gagne.

“A lot of credit to Jamie. He stepped up and told me, ‘Coach, this is what we’d like to do.’ Jamie is really the head guy; he put a lot of time into this,” said Gagne, who also helmed the A West team this year. The coaches of the Classes A and B Regional champion teams are the first invitees to lead the all-star lineups in the Classic. Steve Ouellette of St. Dom’s piloted the A East squad this year, while Gorham’s John Portwine and coached B West and Waterville’s Dennis Martin B East.

“Us having that connection with [the Hospital],” Gagne said, “makes a big, big difference. The kids really feel that they’re not just out here having fun, but that they’re making a contribution. That’s a big deal.”

“I think they understand it’s for a good cause,” said Portwine. “And there are things we could do to bring it even further. I remember, when I played, we used to go to the Children’s Cancer Center; at some point, I think we plan on taking a few guys over there and meeting with the kids, brightening their day a little bit.”

Once the athletes have accrued all their sponsors – once they set foot in the locker room, then set skate on the ice – hockey takes over their brains. These are Maine’s best high school players, after all; a fixation on the game is to be expected.

“[The charity aspect] was definitely in our minds,” said Ben Bragg, Scarborough/West goalie. “But just winning the game was it.”

As for the action: Class A bounced back and forth for both of its 24-minute halves. Branden Dyer (Edward Little) put the East on the board first, roughly eight minutes in, but Isac Nordstrom (Falmouth) soon evened things out again, assisted by Sean McGovern (Scarborough).

McGovern earned another assist just minutes later – and Evan Loignon (Biddeford) earned his first – as James Hannigan (Cheverus) gave the West their first lead. The East tied things again, right on schedule, but 45 seconds later, Nordstrom to Hannigan inched the West ahead once more. The East added one more before the end of the half, meaning the teams went to the locker room tied 3-3 at the break.

Hannigan and Nordstrom reversed roles to start the second half, the former assisting the latter to put the West ahead 4-3, but Jacob McGowan (Brunswick) soon leveled the field, scoring for the East on a feed from Ethan Callier (GNG/Poland/Oak Hill). The East continued to apply heavy pressure to Bragg, now taking his turn in net, and though Bragg stood strong against most of the peppering, he did allow a second puck past: Brad Berube (St. Dom’s) gave the East back the advantage – at least until Hannigan soon capitalized on another quality chance for 5-5.

Caleb Labrie (St. Dom’s) beat Bragg one final time in regulation, giving the East the edge with under three minutes to play. Round about the 1:15 mark, then, Gagne pulled Bragg and sent an extra attacker onto the ice. The strategy paid off; the West’s additional pressure allowed Nordstrom to score the balancing point and send the contest to a three-round shootout at 6-6.

The teams alternated one-on-ones. Nordstrom, McGovern and Jake Grade (Falmouth) all bested the East’s netminders, but the East’s attackers couldn’t keep up, and the West took the W.

“Our first line, with Nordstrom, and Jimmy Hannigan and McGovern,” said Gagne, “they were unbelievable. I said, ‘Boy, would I have loved to have you guys on my line in regular season.’ It was just a great game, up and down.”

The Class B game, by comparison, was also skillfully played, but nowhere near as tense. The West jumped to a huge first-half lead, 5-0. Travis Mansir (Gorham) notched the West’s first goal, and Cape’s Cole Caswell their second, assisted by Matt Hooker (Gorham) and Adam Janetti (York).

York’s Derek Neal then hashed the first three of his five – yep, five – goals, the first on an assist by Hooker and the third on assists by Jordan Ward (Gorham) and Mike LeBlanc (Kennebunk).

Neal grabbed his fourth to start the second half, fed by David Parker (Kennebunk) and Michael Chapin (Gorham), before the East finally spoke up, shoveling one past Nick Allen (Yarmouth) with roughly 14 minutes to play. The East added another in less than a minute for 6-2, but Neal eventually answered.

Hunter Pate (John Bapst) scored one final time for the East, but with just four minutes to play, the West had the W in the bag, 7-3.

These seniors have a long history together – usually, though, they’re on opposite sides of the puck. Saturday, of course, some of them still were; the Scarborough contingent and the St. Dom’s contingent, who faced off in the recent Class A State Final, remained opponents for the Classic, for instance; likewise the Gorham and Messalonskee reps, who battled through the Class B Final.

But McGovern, Nordstrom and Hannigan comprised A West’s first line, and it was McGovern’s Red Storm who bounced both Nordstrom’s Yachtsmen and Hannigan’s Stags from this year’s playoffs. The three have every reason to be rivals. So how readily do their differences vanish, when they join the same side? Pretty readily, as it turns out.

“Once we got in that locker room together and just started talking,” said Bragg, “it all went away, and we were able to play a good game.”

“It’s funny,” said Portwine of rivalries evaporating, “because for like a week, they kind of do. We didn’t have any problems in practices, we didn’t have any problems in the game; we didn’t have any problems in the locker room, no problems on the bench.

“I’m sure there are still old grudges, old scars that haven’t healed. But for the time that we’ve spent together, slim as it is, guys put stuff aside.

“It all disappears,” said Gagne. “They all have a good time. It was a lot of fun for them, and it was a lot of fun for us to coach them. They enjoyed the camaraderie in just the short time – and a lot of the guys have played together before, on other teams.”

And what does the Classic mean for the skaters, emotionally? In general, they seem to derive primarily enjoyment from the event.

“It’s their last time on the ice wearing their high school sweaters,” said Portwine, “so it’s special. This is just fun for the guys; nobody gets upset after this game. I think after you’re done playing with your brothers that you’ve played with all season – that is really the finale of it.

“This is just a good chance to get out there and skate one more time before everybody goes their separate ways, to play with different guys, a group of really talented players.”

Also on the A West roster: Tyler Bellerose (Biddeford), Dean Pratt (Noble/Wells), Andrew Whipple (South Portland/Freeport/Waynflete), Kyle Whitman (Bonny Eagle/Massabesic/OOB), Ryan Marsh (Noble/Wells), Brandon Peters (Falmouth), Eric Profenno (Thornton), Kyle Halvorsen (South Portland/Freeport/Waynflete), Kevin Smith (Scarborough), Hunter Ebling (Thornton), Connor McDowell (Falmouth), Ryan Ruhlin (Portland/Deering), Justin Miles (Bonny Eagle/Massabesic/OOB), James Kane (Cheverus), Quintin Farr (Cheverus), Wyatt Ricker (Noble/Wells).

On A East: Andrew Carpenter (Lawrence/Skowhegan), Adam Poulin (St. Dom’s), Nick Graham (Bangor), Trey Michonski (Lawrence/Skowhegan), Cody Martin (Lawrence/Skowhegan), Dillon Pratt (St. Dom’s), Ben Bishop (Mt. Ararat/Lisbon), Jake Fournier (Bangor), Adam Littlefield (Lawrence/Skowhegan), Tyler O’Connor (Mt. Ararat/Lisbon), Sam Huston (Bangor), Mitch Lorenz (St. Dom’s), Spencer Buck (Cony/Monmouth), Cade Chapman (Edward Little), Matt Chasse (St. Dom’s), Joey Frechette (Lewiston), Nick Hemond (GNG/Poland/Oak Hill); Clayton Owens (Windham), Nick Hawk (Lewiston).

On B West: Simon Lydon (Camden Hills), Jack Graydon (Kennebunk), James Annis (Camden Hills), Jimmy Orso (York), Jack Drinan (Cape), Jan Rutrle (Kennebunk), Curtis Guimond (Cape), Peter Prescott (Maranacook/Winthrop), Ryan Gosselin (Leavitt), Andrew Schmidt (Gorham), Brian Travers (Yarmouth), Nick Walsh (York), Kyle Kramlich (Greely).

On B East: Gabe Valley (Brewer), David Carmack (John Bapst), Keegan Cain (Winslow), Jake Dexter (Messalonskee), Seth Hannigan (Houlton/Hodgdon), Dylan Cray (Hampden), Damien Spencer (Old Town/Orono), Alex Berard (Winslow); Kyle Spox (Brewer), Jonathan Cheff (John Bapst), Jackson Leonard (John Bapst), Cameron Clark (Houlton/Hodgdon), Tyler Davis (Brewer), Jake Larsen (Winslow), Riley Eastman (Hampden), Tyler Byther (Old Town/Orono), Ryan Cole (Hampden), Elija Tuell (Messalonskee), Sam Landers (John Bapst).

The date for the next year’s Classic has already been set: March 12, 2016.

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