Camden Hills and Capital Region players pack together in front of the net as the puck is bouncing away during the central Maine hockey tournament championship game Friday at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Kennebec boys hockey coach Jon Hart wasn’t expecting much out of this season.

Heck, he wasn’t even expecting a season to begin with.

“We knew the (coronavirus case) numbers might rise, we’re indoors. I did not expect to even play at all,” he said. “I assumed the season would just be done.”

The season did take place, however, and as time went on it grew more into the familiar product from normal seasons. There were practices, and then games, and then even a regional postseason tournament, dubbed the COVID Cup. Most of the action took place at one venue, the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell, and teams were crammed into the schedule wherever they could fit.

But they made it work.

“What we pulled out (for) a season was, in my opinion, just an incredible feat,” Hart said. “We were really lucky. The ADs, the rink managers, the trainers, all those people (had) to do extra work.”

“We were lucky we had something,” Cony/Hall-Dale/Monmouth/Erskine boys coach Shawn Johnson said. “Looking back on everything, I could definitely complain about things and the way some of the things went, but when you really look back at it, we really were just flat-out lucky we had anything at all.”

the girls side, the Black Tigers, made up of Winslow, Gardiner, Cony, Messalonskee and Lawrence, played only five games. Getting even that many, however, felt like a win.

“You can let all those outside factors affect you,” coach Anna Wright-Lester said. “You can have all these crazy things going on in the world, but once you get on the ice, masks and all, we were able to have a lot of fun.”

All sports had their obstacles as they tried to hold seasons in the middle of a pandemic, but few had the odds stacked against them the way hockey did. Its nature as a physical, contact sport, combined with the already challenging logistics of finding ice time, put the season in serious doubt, and even when it got the green light, teams had to adjust to all of the challenges that came their way.

“In order to play hockey, you have to be a pretty resilient person,” Capital Region boys coach Richard Fortin said. “I think a lot of the guys are programmed to deal with the challenges we face.”

Co-op teams dealt with seasons that never went smoothly. They had to coordinate changing schedules with multiple schools, and if any of the schools fell into the COVID-19 protocol, its players became unavailable for practices and games.

“It was really, at the beginning, balancing ‘OK, who’s green, who’s yellow, who can’t practice, who has to sit out,'” Wright-Lester said. “So it was kind of monitoring that and also understanding I need to let everyone know that practice is this time this week and our game times have changed. There was a lot of juggling.”

“I never knew. It was literally day-to-day. I wouldn’t hear anything, everything would be fine, then I might get a call later that evening saying ‘So and so was a close contact, so they’re going to be out for a while,'” Johnson said. “You’re like ‘Oh, God.’ You never knew when you’d get a call. I may not get one for a week, or I might get one the day before a game.”

Kennebec Riverhawks’ Brandon Mason (88) tries to get past Cony/Monmouth/Hall-Dale defenseman Brandon Smith during the central Maine hockey tournament Saturday at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Even the games brought reminders of how different things were. Players had to deal with masks that could ride up their face when they were hit along the boards. There were no fans to congratulate players for a successful penalty kill or a slick pass leading to a goal. And boys teams, many of whom were having their depth stretched already, had to deal with 23-minute halves instead of periods.

“That ice gets chewed up, and when you’re used to having it done twice instead of once between everything, that’s a big difference,” Hart said. “I also think, in terms of momentum, hockey has way more swings when you have three periods. … I almost wish they would have given us two timeouts because of that.”

As far as approaching the games, though, that remained the same, even without a state tournament awaiting the teams.

“The kids wanted to play, they were hungry to play,” Johnson said. “When we were out there, everything felt normal. … It felt like the regular season.”

Still, the teams got a boost when the announcement came that six boys hockey teams would play in the COVID Cup, which featured two round robin groups and ended with Camden Hills defeating Capital Region in the final. The teams had a championship to play for and the playoff atmosphere they were expecting to miss out on.

“Whenever there’s hardware involved, you want your name on that,” Fortin said. “I can tell you, my kids wanted their name on that, for sure. They’re a competitive group.”

“For us to have that opportunity to play that one-and-done-feel game, even though we came up short, it was a big learning thing for all of our kids,” Hart said.

It was the kind of season no one would want to go through again. But even so, the people involved were aware of just how fortunate they ended up being.

“It’s really not about what a normal season is,” Hart said. “It’s just about getting to play hockey and competing. It definitely went way above what I thought it was going to be.”

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