Two of the state’s winningest high school hockey programs — and bitter rivals, at that — will merge this season with Waterville and Winslow agreeing to field a cooperative team.

Low numbers and the shuttering of Sukee Arena, which resulted in lack of ice time for Winslow, led to the latest merger in high school hockey.

Two-time defending Class B state champ Waterville will become the first team since 2005 — regardless of class — to win a title then fail to field a standalone program the following season.

Fryeburg won the Class B state title in 2004 but did not field a standalone team the following season.

“Obviously, we didn’t want to do this,” said Waterville coach Dennis Martin, who’s led the Purple Panthers to three state championships in 14 seasons. “But it had to be done so that we could have hockey.”

Both school boards approved the merger, with Winslow voting in March and Waterville following last week.

Waterville athletic director Heidi Bernier confirmed the move and said via text message that the schools have informed the Maine Principals’ Association.

“It was approved, and the paperwork for a cooperative boys ice hockey team to play in Class B has been filed with the MPA,” Bernier said.

Waterville graduated eight seniors from its 17-player roster last winter and was faced with only a handful of incoming freshmen next season. Martin estimated that there would only be as many as 11 players for next season. Winslow had 13 players last winter, but it didn’t graduate anyone.

Winslow coach Dave Leach said the closure of Sukee Arena made it difficult for the program to survive on its own.

“It was hard to jell a team with an average of just two practices a week,” he said. “The numbers in Winslow looked all right, with three good freshmen coming in. The numbers weren’t the scary part, it was the quality of hockey.”

The new co-op will likely play its home games at Alfond Rink on the Colby College campus, which has long served as Waterville’s home ice.

“I have been assured by Colby that if we co-op with Winslow it will not affect our relationship with the college and, hence, will not jeopardize our use of the ice arena,” Bernier said in April.

Waterville forward Cody Pellerin, who will be a senior next season, said he knew this day would come, but that it didn’t make it any easier to process.

“You never want to hear that you’re playing with your rival. That kind of ruins the purpose,” Pellerin said. “But I’m not surprised that we’re combining. Both of our (school’s) numbers are very low.”

Just who will coach the new program is also undecided as the job is open.

Leach said he retired from coaching after the season, while Martin said he is unsure if he will be back for a 15th season behind the bench.

The move marks the second time Winslow has entered into a hockey co-operative agreement in the last year — its girls program merged with Gardiner last season.

The Black Tigers practiced at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell.

Winslow athletic director Jim Bourgoin said during the spring that his school only planned to approach Waterville about forming a co-op.

“I think the only other piece of the puzzle was Sukee Arena,” Leach said. “If Sukee was still running, would they have done this (co-op)? In the end, I think it’s a positive thing for both schools.”

Waterville and Winslow certainly will lean on their familiarity in the beginning. In the past it may have bred contempt, it’s now a building block.

“One thing going for us is that we all played together when we were younger on Central Maine (Youth Hockey Association) teams,” Pellerin said. “Starting now, with this, it’s just like how it was when we were younger.”

Martin added that the move could also be temporary.

“This is not something that’s set in stone forever, ” he said. “If numbers come back up, if the economy gets a boost and there are more players playing hockey, both schools could go back to fielding standalone hockey teams.

“But next year, (Waterville) just didn’t have enough players.”

Waterville has won 22 state championships in school history, including 20 in Class A. It won the first MPA-recognized state title in 1927.

Winslow owns 11 Class B state championships — the most of any school in its class — with its last coming in 2008.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

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Twitter: @TBarrettGWC