The Gardiner, Waterville and Winslow boys hockey programs enjoy rich histories, combining for 34 state championships dating to 1927.

The three programs are also profound rivals, with decades of intense showdowns connecting their pasts.

This year, however, the three central Maine schools will skate together as a co-operative program that will compete in Class B North. The co-op, administrators acknowledged, was necessary because of low participation numbers at each school.

The merger not only shook up the sport’s landscape, but also sparked strong reactions from those who were part of the fierce rivalries.

“It’s really sad,” said Jon Hart, who played for Waterville from 2002-2006 and later coached Waterville and Winslow when it formed its own co-op in 2017. “It’s the right decision. But it makes a lot of us that played in this area (sad)… It’s hard to see three programs that should stand alone and be top five in their league have to come together to survive. It’s tough.”

Added Devon Grenier, a 2006 Winslow graduate and four-year hockey player:  “Honestly, it’s a little sad. It just brings (memories) of when I was in high school, even before high school, going to watch those games and I used to look forward to those games all the time. You’d go to those games in Sukee Arena or (the Kennebec Ice Arena) or Colby (College), and those rinks would be packed solid with students.”



An unlikely pairing

The Kennebec River Hawks — the co-op between Waterville and Winslow — had just 13 players and could not finish last season. They played just six games, losing them all.

Gardiner, meanwhile, finished 8-10-0 last season and reached the B North semifinals after it upset top seed Messalonskee. But with a veteran-heavy roster, Gardiner athletic director Nate Stubbert could see trouble looming.

“It was just a matter of numbers,” Stubbert said. “Waterville and Winslow, they co-oped a while back and were having a difficult time finding enough kids last year to complete a season. We knew our numbers were going to be diminishing. Heidi Bernier, the Waterville (athletic director) and I had a conversation on the potential of forming a co-op, and it fit. It’s three storied hockey programs coming together and forming one. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a sign of the times with ice hockey. But so far, it’s been a great collaboration.”

Gardiner/Winslow/Waterville co-op coaches instruct the team during practice Wednesday in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Stubbert, Bernier and Winslow Athletic Director Jim Bourgoin agreed that a three-school co-op program was the best path forward.


“It was very clear after last season that we would not have enough skaters out with our projected numbers, to include incoming freshmen, that we would not have enough to safely sponsor boys ice hockey between the two schools,” Bernier said. “I contacted athletic directors in a 60-mile radius to see if anybody would entertain accepting our student-athletes on their teams. The only school that was able to entertain that conversation was Gardiner, as their numbers were projected to go down this current year. … In meeting with our student-athletes and their families last spring about this potential opportunity, they were all excited about the benefits and the opportunity for our kids to play boys ice hockey for the upcoming season, as well as having a (junior varsity) team at the developmental level, which we haven’t had in a few years.”

The new co-op is part of a growing trend in Maine high school hockey, as schools across the state grapple with low participation numbers. In 2012-2013, there were just six boys hockey co-op programs in the state. By the 2017-18 season, that number swelled to 14. Entering the 2022-2023 season, 16 of the 33 boys hockey programs in Maine are co-ops, according to data from the Maine Principals’ Association.

“I think (the Gardiner/Winslow/Waterville co-op) is just kind of indicative of the falling numbers in schools,” said Messalonskee Athletic Director Chad Foye, a member of the MPA Ice Hockey Committee. “It’s not just hockey, it’s a lot of sports. We don’t have as many students in schools and we’re not going to have as many hockey players.”


How did we get here?

Cam Bishop played at Waterville from 2005-2009. He helped the Purple Panthers win their last Class A title, in 2008-09. Bishop said a decline in participation numbers is tough to swallow.


“Sad is the first word that comes to mind,” he said. “Obviously, with the history of those three programs, especially from the Waterville perspective, all those Class A championships and the Waterville tradition. It’s kind of disappointing to see how the program has turned out as of late. It’s great the kids have the opportunity (to play), but (the fact) the community of Waterville doesn’t have enough kids to have a hockey team to continue that tradition is really discouraging.”

Bishop, now an athletic director at Wiscasset High School, cited growing costs, lack of available ice in central Maine and struggling youth programs as the biggest contributing factors to the sport’s decline in numbers at the high school level.

Members of the Gardiner/Winslow/Waterville co-op hockey team stretch during practice Wednesday in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Norm Gagne won six state titles over a combined 31 years behind the bench at Gardiner and Waterville. Gagne founded the Gardiner program in 1974. He led the Tigers to Class B titles in 1981, 1983 and 1985. After 13 seasons at Gardiner, Gagne became coach at Waterville, where he won three Class A titles.

He, too, said although the new Gardiner-Winslow-Waterville merger may be a necessity, it’s still difficult to see.

“I was shocked when I heard Waterville didn’t have numbers for hockey players,” said Gagne, now the coach at Edward Little. “I can remember when I first took the job there (in 1986), I had so many kids there on the ice trying out, I just couldn’t believe I had to pick from so many kids. I think I had 50 or 60 kids on that ice, and I’m not exaggerating. … We used to have 50 teams (in the state). Now we’re down to (33). I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s a sad, sad state right now.”

Gagne and Gardiner/Winslow/Waterville coach K.C. Johnson also pointed to the closing of the Sukee Arena and Events Center in Winslow in 2016 as having a big effect on the central Maine hockey community.


“It’s hard,” said Johnson, who was a member of the 1983 and 1985 Class B title teams under Gagne at Gardiner. “I said it back when I ran (the former Kennebec Ice Arena) and I’ll say it today: Hockey is a lifestyle. It’s not just a sport. It’s a complete 180 (degree turn) from the way normal parents live. You’re in a car, all winter long, traveling. If you really want to play at a higher level, you’re traveling year-round. It’s a lifestyle. And it’s something not a lot of parents choose these days, it’s hard.”


Moving forward

Gardiner/Winslow/Waterville — which will not carry a mascot this year — features 27 players, including three goalies. Johnson, the coach, said more than half the roster is comprised of Gardiner student-athletes. .

“Things are looking up,” he said. “The kids are working hard. I wrote on our Facebook page that these are three programs that definitely made a lot of history in central Maine, but together, felt like they were never separate programs, which is true. The kids know each other, they like each other. I know it’s early, but it’s a lot of fun. They’re kind of loose, in a way, which is kind of cool. … We’ll see how it goes. We still have a lot of jelling to do.”

Members of the Gardiner/Winslow/Waterville/ co-op hockey team skate during practice Wednesday in Hallowell. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Added Winslow senior Jared Newgard: “Last year, we had a really bad year. We had maybe 10 kids on the ice. To see 30 out there (now) is just a totally different game. It was difficult (last year) because maybe you would have two lines (for games). Some games we had to cancel, because we didn’t have enough. It’s just a lot better knowing you’re guaranteed games, because you have (numbers).”

Gardiner senior Cam Lasselle agreed, saying the team is slowly coming together.

My initial thought was, ‘wow, this is going to be horrible,” he said. “But I started to think about it more and more, and the guys (who would be) on the team, later in the summer, I thought, ‘Man, this is going to be fun.’ There’s been a lot of talent (with the programs) in the past, and there’s a lot of talent going (into the season). We’re all excited. … I think it’s going really smooth. Probably better than most of us expected. We’re coming along great, and it’s fun. It’s awesome, I love it.”

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