AUGUSTA — The health and safety protocols, late start to the season and regionalized scheduling facing hockey programs this winter are no different than the challenges faced by other high school sports teams since last summer.

One unique challenge facing hockey teams relates to the co-op option employed by the majority of Maine’s varsity programs.

“The complicated thing for us, for a team like (Capital Region) and even Cony now, is that you don’t always have all of the kids,” said Jon Hart, the fourth-year head coach of the Waterville/Winslow co-op known as the Kennebec RiverHawks. “If your school is virtual, you can’t practice. Because Winslow had gone remote, we didn’t have any of those kids for almost the first three weeks of practice.”

“That’s absolutely a challenge,” added Shawn Johnson, whose Cony/Hall-Dale/Monmouth co-op added Erskine Academy this season.

Like most things in the age of COVID-19, Johnson said, it’s imperative to remain flexible.

“I’m still trying to approach everything the same way as before,” Johnson said. “Even with no playoffs, there isn’t that thought of changing because, ‘Oh, we’re not gong to make the playoffs.’ It’s still all about the short-term every week and getting ready for the next game ahead.

“Other than what comes my way that’s not predictable — like somebody is out because of contract tracing or a school going virtual or a game being canceled — I’m pretty much the same as I’ve always been. At the same time, you just don’t know what’s going to come.”

There are several noticeable differences to the hockey season this year.

Players and coaches are required to wear masks at all times, including during practices and games. There is a 12-game regionalized “pod” schedule, which in central Maine means multiple games between Cony, Gardiner, Capital Region and Kennebec. There are no playoffs this winter, and spectators are not allowed to attend games.

Kennebec RiverHawks coach John Hart runs practice on Jan. 8 at the Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Because Colby College and Kents Hill School are not opening their campuses to outside programs, all teams — including the Winslow/Gardiner/Cony/Messalonskee girls — are practicing and playing games at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault.

Ice time is tougher to come by, at least on a regular basis.

“We were spoiled,” Hart said of Waterville’s longstanding agreement with Colby College, previously guaranteeing available ice time for practices weekday afternoons.

One change that took place over the offseason had nothing to do with the global pandemic.

Dennis Martin, who coached Waterville for more than a decade and left following back-to-back Class B state championships in 2016-2017, returned to the bench this winter at Messalonskee. He takes over one of the two standalone programs in the area — Gardiner is the other — after Kevin Castner led the Eagles to the Class B North semifinals last spring following a two-year rebuild.

“The opportunity just opened up,” Martin said. “My children go to Messalonskee, we live in Oakland, and it was a chance for me to give back to Messalonskee. I’ve coached a lot of these kids in youth hockey, too, so there’s some familiarity.

“I wasn’t ready to hang up the skates just yet.”

Martin’s first season at the helm of the Eagles has been unusual, to say the least. While he hasn’t  had to juggle different schedules for different schools, there have been interruptions.

Messalonskee was off the ice for the last week following the school’s move to remote learning on Jan. 14. The first scheduled game, for Jan. 16, was postponed as a result.

Even with the constant shifting in plans, Martin said his expectations have not.

Cony hockey players reach for the puck during a Jan. 8 practice at the Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“You expect kids are always busting and giving 100 percent every time we go,” Martin said. “I’ve always told the kids that hard work pays off, and those who work hard will be rewarded. I’ve kept more kids on the roster. I’m not saying that playing time is equal, but would I have dressed 20 kids for a game in the past? No. This year, I probably will.”

With no playoffs in February and March, teams’ goals have changed. Coaches admit that they are focusing on the bigger picture more and less on the day-to-day details.

“The most important thing in our world right now isn’t hockey games, but we’re so glad we get to play them,” Hart said. “At times, because of the situation, you can sit back and say, ‘It’s good for the kids, I don’t need to be going crazy because they messed up a drill.’ I think it’s given us all perspective. You always have something from these terrible situations.”

Martin agreed.

“Here and there, it gets a little strange,” Martin said. “But it’s strange for everybody. The No. 1 thing is that you’ve got to make everybody safe. It’s safety first — playing or coaching a hockey game, well, the livelihood of the kids is more important than that.”

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