Messalonskee’s Owen Kirk, right, (24) is congratulated by teammates after his first period goal put the Eagles up 1-0 over Gardiner during a Class B North quarterfinal hockey game last season at The Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

After two years of chaos, many sports saw a return of normalcy as Maine’s 2022-23 high school sports season approached. 

For the state’s boys hockey players, though, the chaos largely continued.

New cooperative arrangements have changed the playing landscape with dwindling numbers forcing programs to fold or consolidate. Players and coaches have also dealt with anxiety stemming from a dispute between the Maine Principals’ Association and state hockey referees that stood to threaten the 2022-23 season.

“There’s been a lot of stuff happening,” said Cony head coach Shawn Johnson. “Some of the teams that are together would have some people rolling over in their graves, and then you add in (the officiating situation) on top of it. … I’m just glad that now we can focus on hockey.”

Indeed, the issues of a stressful offseason have, in one way or another, now been resolved — and although things might not be ideal, central Maine hockey players are back on the ice after months of drama away from it.

Leading the way is the lone local team not in a cooperative agreement: Messalonskee, which put together a strong season a year ago as it claimed the No. 1 seed in Class B North. The Eagles did it through offensive firepower, scoring three goals or more in all but one game en route to a 10-3-1 season.


Back for Messalonskee are the team’s two top scorers, Owen Kirk (17 goals, 13 assists) and Bryce Crowell (16 goals, 12 assists). Those two players lead a group of forwards that returns eight of nine players and has head coach Dennis Martin giddy with excitement.

“We’re going to be deep up front,” said Martin, now in his third year as Messalonskee head coach after spending 13 seasons coaching Waterville. “We’re 10 deep up front, so we’re going to be strong there. … We have some good team speed, and we have a lot of depth.”

Defensively, Messalonskee has work to do after the losses of key players such as Brandon Bearce, Francesca Caccamo and Brady Doucette and goaltenders Giovanni Caccamo and Mitchell Grant. Yet the Eagles do bring back a couple defenseman in Bjorn Brickett and Grayson Podey and will add in a few newcomers Martin hopes to see contribute.

A year ago, Messalonskee had the No. 1 seed in the Class B North playoffs but suffered a 3-2 upset loss to eighth-ranked Gardiner in the first round. That loss, Martin said, has been eating away at the Eagles as the team sets its sights on another winning campaign in 2022-23.

“It’s just one of those things where you never know what’s going to happen when the playoffs come,” Martin said. “You could have a goalie stand on their head, you don’t get a break, and that’s it. Hopefully, we’ve learned from that. We have most of the team back from last year, so it’s a motivated group.”

Messalonskee’s Owen Kirk, (24) watches his shot make it into the Gardiner net during a Class B North quarterfinal hockey game last season at The Camden National Bank Ice Vault in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Elsewhere in central Maine, the Capital Region hockey program, which drew players from Maranacook, Winthrop, Hall-Dale, Lawrence and Spruce Mountain, has folded. The Eagles, head coach Richard Fortin said, were looking at a roster of just eight or nine players — far too few to hit the ice this winter.


Fortunately for the players still looking to play hockey this winter, they’ve now found another home at Cony. After taking in players from Erskine Academy, Monmouth Academy, Mt. Blue and Richmond last year, the latter two teams have now dropped out of the cooperative agreement, leaving room for the Rams to take on student-athletes from Hall-Dale and Winthrop.

Between the new players and Cony’s returners, the Rams have a roster of about 28 this season. Those players will be under the tutelage of Johnson, who retired in the offseason after three decades of coaching the team but returned after he couldn’t resist the itch to get back on the ice.

“I pulled a Tom Brady,” Johnson said of his offseason change of heart. “My son is a junior on the team, and with the way the coaching carousel worked out, I just thought it would be best if I came back. I really wanted to coach this group; we have a young team this year, but they’re a great bunch.”

There certainly is a youth movement at Cony after the Rams graduated 17 players from last year’s 7-8-1 team. Johnson’s team only has a select few players back in his son, Luke, fellow forward Zach Waddell, defenseman Kyle Clavet and goaltenders Landon Foster and Tyler Pelletier, meaning newcomers will have to step up for Cony this winter.

“We lost a lot of starters out of the first three lines; we just have two kids left out of those,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of young kids, and it’s going to be a growing year for us. I’ve told them, ‘Look, we’re going to take lumps this year, and we’re going to need to learn from that.’ The good thing is that they have great attitudes, and they’re hungry.”

Cony’s rival, Gardiner, will not be meeting the Rams on the ice this year — at least not directly. That’s because Gardiner has now joined forces with Waterville and Winslow to form a three-way cooperative arrangement of programs that all have storied histories in the sport.


It’s a development that would have been nothing short of shocking to those familiar with the programs even a few seasons ago. On the ice, though, the Waterville/Winslow/Gardiner team is coming together nicely as players who are no strangers to one another get the hang of skating together.

Cony’s Luke Johnson skates away from Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse’s Hunter Merryman during a boys hockey game last season in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“A lot of these kids know each other, and they get along really well,” said head coach K.C. Johnson. “The programs are very similar in many ways; you have communities with the working-class, lunch-pail types of attitudes. They’re like-minded kids, and they work hard, so there’s no complaints at all.”

The influx of Gardiner kids into the previously existing Waterville/Winslow co-op means more talent for the team, too. In addition to defenseman Jared Newgard (Winslow) and forward Pete Sack (Waterville), the team now has Gardiner’s Garret Doyle (14 goals, seven assists last year), Nate Luiz (seven goals, four assists) and Cam Lasselle (five goals, 10 assists) in the mix up front.

Waterville/Winslow/Gardiner will also be solid defensively with Evan Michaud anchoring the defense and Jac Crocher, Aiden Paradis and Noah Robertson all spending time in goal. Add it all up, and you have a team that Johnson can’t wait to watch in action as the first countable games approach.

“Top-to-bottom, we’re pretty all-around steady,” Johnson said. “When I look around, I like what I see just about everywhere. Our offensive talent is good, very good, but I think we’re jelling together as a team more than anything. The kids are really staying focused, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Reigning Class B North champ Camden Hills will look to repeat in the region this year and will face challenges from Hampden Academy and John Bapst in addition to Messalonskee and Waterville/Winslow/Gardiner. In the South, Brunswick will look to defend its Class B title as it brings back a core group of forwards from last year’s state championship team.

In Class A, Edward Little and Lewiston will lead a pack of talented teams looking to dethrone Scarborough for the state championship. Mt. Ararat/Lisbon/Morse/Hyde will also be a much-improved team after bringing back the bulk of a roster that showed plenty of promise in 2021-22.

It’s a landscape that’s different all around with the officiating impasse putting the season in peril a month ago and numbers issues forcing other issues elsewhere, as was the case with a Portland/Deering team that’s opted for junior varsity play. Yet for the teams that remain, there’s optimism that the season ahead will be just as thrilling as ever.

“The two exhibition games we’ve had have actually been the best-officiated games we’ve had in a while,” Martin said. “It’s great to be having a season. It would’ve been bad for the seniors if they got through COVID, and then that happened and they couldn’t play. We’re happy to be on the ice.”

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