Biddeford High players rush toward the bench after scoring what proved to be the winning goal against Portland/Deering in the Class A South final in March. This winter, the Tigers will be the host team for a new cooperative program. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Even the Biddeford High boys’ hockey team couldn’t buck the trend.

The Tigers, who have a rich history of success, will play for the first time as part of a cooperative team this winter.

It’s one of several changes coming for the 2019-20 high school hockey season – including Cheverus and two other boys’ programs dropping from Class A to B.

Cooperative teams have been growing rapidly in Maine hockey in recent years as participation has dropped. Last winter, the number of boys playing high school hockey dropped 7.1 percent from 2017-18, and the number of girls fell 11.5 percent. Over a five-year period, the boys were down 8.1 percent and girls up 2.5 percent.

Biddeford has won three Class A championships since 2007 and advanced to the state title game each of the past two winters. But last season, the Tigers played with a roster in the “upper teens,” which Athletic Director Dennis Walton termed “dangerously low.”

With the graduation of seven players, Walton sought out skating partners. The Biddeford boys will now be the host school for a cooperative with Massabesic and Old Orchard Beach, two schools that had formerly been in a co-op with Bonny Eagle.

That was one of 26 co-op applications that were recommended for approval Wednesday at the Maine Principals’ Association’s hockey committee meeting. Six of the 13 teams in Class A boys’ hockey, nine of 22 Class B boys’ teams and 11 of 16 girls’ teams will be co-op programs.

In addition, three former Class A teams have opted to play in Class B. Cheverus and Cony/Monmouth/Hall-Dale will no longer petition to play up in class, said Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director for interscholastic activities. Also, Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse has dropped Hyde School as a fourth partner. The new arrangement places that team in Class B.

Combined with the elimination of two previous co-operative programs – Skowhegan/Lawrence and Massabesic/OOB/Bonny Eagle – Class A has been reduced from 18 to 13 teams. Burnham said the changes will not affect regular-season scheduling, but a dramatic overhaul to the Class A playoff structure has been proposed to the management committee, which meets Nov. 20. Boys’ hockey practices start Nov. 18.

“I’m not going to say what that is until the management committee gets a chance to look at it,” Burnham said.

Walton said Biddeford explored the option of forming a co-op prior to last season, when the Tigers won the Class A South title, eventually losing to St. Dominic Academy in the state final.

“I think there’s kind of a misconception because we made it to the state game,” Walton said. “Last year our numbers were low, but our talent was really good. And we were fortunate to stay healthy.

“We looked into it again this year. It was just a matter of communicating with a few schools, seeing what needs are,” Walton added.

For Old Orchard Beach’s players, the shift to playing with Biddeford has benefits.

“In terms of convenience, they’ll have their own locker room to store equipment and they know the kids. They grew up playing with them,” said OOB Athletic Director Dean Plante.

The Bonny Eagle boys have not been left out in the cold. About 15 players will join the already established Windham/Westbrook program, with Windham as the host school. The new program will be known as the Trail Blazers.

“Windham/Westbrook practices at (the University of Southern Maine). We practice at USM, so it’s a good match,” said Bonny Eagle AD Eric Curtis.

While other schools have found new skating partners for the upcoming high school hockey season, Cheverus High will maintain its relationship with Old Orchard Beach and Kennebunk in defense of its girls’ state title.

As recently as last week, Cheverus had been exploring the option of joining the Portland-Deering co-operatives for both boys’ and girls’ hockey. That was taken off the table through a decision by Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana.

A possible merger of the Cheverus girls with Greely/Gray-New Gloucester, which beat Cheverus in the 2018 state final, also failed to come together.

Old Orchard Beach expects to send two or three players to the Cheverus girls’ team, including returning starting goalie Trinity Atwater, Plante said. Kennebunk does not anticipate having any girls’ hockey players this season but is keeping the co-operative arrangement in place, said Kennebunk AD Joe Schwartzman.

On Wednesday afternoon the Cheverus athletic department sent out a tweet encouraging players to come to an informational meeting on Thursday if they “want to help the Lady Stags defend a state title!?”

Cheverus Athletic Director Amy Ashley did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In other changes, the Lawrence boys will join the Maranacook/Winthrop/Madison/Spruce Mountain team, and Massabesic has been replaced by Westbrook in a girls’ co-operative with Gorham and Bonny Eagle.

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