Cony’s Erin Richardson, center, practices Wednesday at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell.

HALLOWELL — Gabby Benson has but one regret. She wished she’d had this opportunity earlier in her career.

The Cony High School senior is one of two Rams to be the first players from the Augusta school to join the Winslow/Gardiner girls hockey team this season. Just two years removed from Winslow being a standalone entrant in the North Division, the Black Tigers are now Winslow/Gardiner/Cony.

The new-look team opens its season Saturday afternoon at Cheverus/Kennebunk.

“One hundred percent, I wish I’d done it earlier,” Benson said. “The coaches are awesome, and I’ve already formed a bond with a lot of the girls.”

Benson played three years for Cony’s boys hockey team, often relegated to limited minutes in controlled situations. Now, she she can expect to be one of head coach Alan Veilleux’s top defensemen and play a key role for the Black Tigers all season.

Cony athletic director Paul Vachon said Benson first approached him about joining the then-Winslow/Gardiner team prior to last season. Benson, with encouragement from some of her longtime boys teammates, decided to play one more winter with the Rams, with players she’d grown up playing youth hockey with.

“We try to take our student athletes and give them opportunities to succeed in the best way they possibly can,” Vachon said. “We’ve had Cony hockey for how many years? I told them I’d check into it. (Athletic director) Jim Bourgoin at Winslow, he said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have those young ladies.’ They know the coaches, who coach younger girls in the area, so it made the transition really easy for them.”

There are 16 girls hockey teams in Maine, eight in the North and eight in the South. Twelve of those are co-ops, with seven of those co-ops comprised of three or more schools.

Benson’s insistence on making the switch to a girls-only hockey team this year has affected more than just her.

Sophomore Erin Richardson is the other Cony player on the team this season, and she said she would not have been interested in playing on a boys team.

“This seemed like a really good opportunity, and I was excited,” Richardson said. “I feel like I’m learning and actually able to play — instead of feeling like I’m playing catch-up (on a boys team). That’s nice.”

Veilleux, now in his second year as the team’s head coach, has long been an advocate for growing the girls game in central Maine.

Adding another school — even if it is Gardiner’s Kennebec River rival from Augusta — simply opened the girls game to more participants in the area.

“We’re trying to build the program in the area, and the more schools we can get on board the better it is,” Veilleux said. “We encourage any girl that wants to come out and play to play.”

Veilleux also knows that Benson could prove an invaluable asset to the Black Tigers. Having played hockey since she was two years old, she will be a key member on the ice for a team that lost several key players from last year’s regional finalist as well as a mentor off of it to some new players who have little prior hockey experience.

“She’s experienced, she’s got some skills and she’ll definitely be a force for us,” Veilleux said. “We’ll put her back on the blue line where we’re going to need her. She’s a pleasant addition.”

Cony’s Erin Richardson practices Wednesday at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell.

No one is more pleased than Benson, who has already begun enjoying the camaraderie which was missing from her time with the Cony boys team.

“It’s a different morale from an all-girls team than with an all-boys team. You can be more involved,” Benson said. “I’m in the locker room now, instead of waiting for someone to say, ‘OK, five minutes until game time. You can come in now.’ It’s really cool to be more included in that sort of stuff.

“And with girls hockey, it’s amazing to see it expand as it has. It’s exciting to see the new girls and be part of this.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.