Messalonskee boys hockey players skate during a Nov. 23 practice at Kents Hill School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

This preseason, ever central Maine high school hockey team had a laser-like focus on a particular aspect of the game.

Whether it’s new coaches, new philosophies or new bodies — or, in some cases, a lack of them — the first normal training camp in two years has already been a productive one.

For Messalonskee and second-year head coach Dennis Martin, status quo is anything but that.

“I think we had 18 or 19 practices all year last year, and after (preseason) we’re going to have more than half of that already,” said Martin, who coached Waterville to consecutive Class B state championships in 2016-2017. “It’s nice to just practice and get everybody in sync.”

Martin has plenty of familiarity to aid in the process — 19 of his 20 skaters from a season ago all returned. Only 2020-21 leading scorer Myles Hammond graduated.

With so much talent returning, including a pair of new faces in transfers Brandon Bearce (Waterville) and Cody Pawson (Old Town), Martin said he’s guarding against complacency and over-confidence.

“Guys are fighting for jobs every day,” Martin said. “They’ve got to come to work, and that’s the biggest thing we stress. You can’t be complacent. You have to outwork the opponent, win loose pucks, win battles, and if you can do that you’re going to win hockey games.”

Kennebec hockey players skate during a Nov. 23 practice at Kents Hill School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

While Messalonskee is looking for a deep run in Class B North, the Kennebec River Hawks are gearing up for what they hope will be a return to prominence.

With only 13 players on the roster, new head coach Todd Dostie understands that may take some time for the Waterville-Winslow co-op.

“We knew what we were doing, and we knew where we wanted to go,” said Dostie, a four-year assistant under previous coach Jon Hart.  

“We are hoping that next year we can maybe add some other schools like Lawrence, Skowhegan and Madison and build Waterville/Winslow hockey back to where they once were,” added Dostie, who will have brother Brad Dostie — a former Norm Gagne understudy at Waterville — as an assistant coach. “There are so many championships and so much pride between the two schools, we want to get that back and teach these kids what that’s all about.”

Wyatt Grenier is the lone senior for the River Hawks and he’ll handle the goaltending duties this winter, just like older brother Ben Grenier once did. Ben Grenier was the Morning Sentinel hockey player of the year for the 2018-19 season.

Other Class B North teams like Capital Region, Gardiner and the Cony/Monmouth/Erskine/Mt. Blue/Richmond co-op are paying more attention to the on-ice product.

Capital Region, in addition to its Maranacook and Winthrop staples, also feature players from Hall-Dale, Spruce Mountain and Lawrence.

Winslow/Gardiner/Brewer/Messalonskee/Lawrence/Erskine Academy goalie Emma Michaud, left, makes the glove save in front of Brunswick’s Lisa Palmer during a Nov. 27 game at The Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“For us, it’s ‘How do we generate offense? How do we produce goals?’ ” said Capital Region coach Richard Fortin. “Last year, we had a better goals against than a lot of the teams in that (end-of-year regional) tournament. We lost our top two defensemen from that team, but at the same time we simply didn’t score enough goals last year.

“Sometimes that means just simplifying things. Passing, driving the net is what generates goals. There’s really nothing else that generates them.”

On the girls side of the equation, first-year coach Bill Boardman — whose daughter Kylie Boardman is a junior defenseman — has a similar focus for a Winslow/Gardiner co-op that is now comprised of players from six different schools — Cony, Lawrence, Messalonskee and Brewer.

Top-heavy in the past, Boardman wants to see the Black Tigers spread some of the wealth this winter.

“We’re pretty strong defensively still, so we really want to get better at getting everyone involved offensively,” Boardman said. “We’ve spent a lot of time working on passing the puck, forechecking, our offensive play trying to get more girls involved — rather than just one workhorse doing all the work. We needed to pick up the slack there.”

With COVID protocols still in place in some facilities, the most notable change to the hockey season locally comes in the form of practice sites.

Colby College is not allowing off-campus teams to utilize its new arena, so Capital Region, Kennebec and Messalonskee are practicing at Kents Hill School this winter. All three teams will play their home games at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell.

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