WATERVILLE — Jon Hart finds himself in a precarious position, and it has nothing to do with being a first-year coach of a hockey program that, at least on one side of the river, has won each of the last two Class B state championships.

Unlike the players, many of whom grew up playing with one another on various house and travel teams in Waterville and Winslow, Hart doesn’t know anybody.

“There’s a lot of kids, and it’s hard to figure out where they’re all going to fit in perfectly,” Hart said. “And in hockey, with all the pads and helmets, unless you see their name, they look very similar to one another.”

When the new Waterville/Winslow boys hockey cooperative team hit the ice for the first time Monday at Colby College’s Alfond Rink — rebranded as the Kennebec RiverHawks — Hart found himself in charge of 30 players trying to establish a new identity beyond being traditionally bitter cross-river rivals.

Panther purple and Raider orange have been replaced by black and silver as the team’s new colors.

“In high school we’ve obviously had our differences through different sports,” Waterville senior Chase Wheeler said. “But having played Central Maine Youth Hockey out here on this same (Alfond) ice before, it feels like a skills night with all the guys.”

“I don’t see anything other than kids being kids out here,” Hart added. “I don’t see any division, and that’s the way we’re preaching it. There is no division. That’s why we went with the new colors and the new name.”

The two merging programs fought different issues in deciding to enter into a co-op. For Waterville, it was declining numbers in the program, a reality that set in with the graduation of nine seniors from last winter’s state title team. For Winslow, it was a lack of ice availability exacerbated by the closing of Sukee Arena prior to last season’s league-worst 3-15-0 record.

This week, there’s been nothing but excitement from the players as they prepare for a new season under circumstances the seniors in the group certainly could never have imagined when they began their careers four years ago.

“I’m excited,” said Winslow senior Nick West. “Last year wasn’t even fun, playing with 12 skaters every game and losing 15 out of our 18 games. I was excited for a new opportunity.”

Not everyone was excited from the get-go.

“Honestly, Waterville kids weren’t too happy about it,” Wheeler said. “But I think as we realized that’s what needed to happen, and we started having meetings and communicating with them a little more and we realized what was going on, everybody was OK with it.”

“The first two years of my high school career were fun,” West added. “But hockey is dying around here, anyway, so (a merger) was bound to happen at some point. I’m glad it happened my senior year instead of going through another year that just wasn’t fun.”

With the arrival of the preseason, all systems were go. And once players hit the ice for a few drills, it felt familiar.

“Most of us, through our youth years, have played with each other,” West said. “I think we had that bond before. We’ve jelled well together so far, even though we’re only two days in.”

Hart played for Waterville Senior High School from 2003-2006, where he has spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach with the football team. A teacher at Waterville Jr. High, Hart was an assistant coach for five seasons at Gardiner Area High School through the 2014-15 season.

This is his first head coaching position at the varsity level. He succeeds Dennis Martin, who coached Waterville for 14 seasons, winning three state championships, and Dave Leach, who coached Winslow last winter and retired at the conclusion of the season.

“We need to have an identity that we’re going to be able to play hard and grind out games,” Hart said of what he wants from a team with his stamp on it. “That’s all it is. We want to get to a point where we feel like as a team we can trust each other, trust our coaching, trust our skills and play hard.”

So far, that’s exactly what’s happening.

“Everybody’s fighting for a spot. Nobody’s guaranteed a starting spot, nobody’s guaranteed a captaincy,” Wheeler said. “Coach Hart’s doing a great job, he’s working us hard. We know he’s going to put the best players out on the ice who are going to bring us the most goals and the most wins.”

Even if he still can’t quite tell them all apart.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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