OAKLAND — Chase Cunningham’s high school hockey career had ended minutes earlier, but there was still one more assist he wanted to record.
Cunningham had been thinking about how to celebrate a first state title for his Messalonskee team, an outcome that seemed inevitable as the Eagles rolled through an unbeaten season.
When the moment finally arrived, Cunningham orchestrated a touching moment at the tail end of all the revelry on the ice. The team called over a surprised assistant coach, Lee Bureau, and handed him the championship plaque as one more round of applause welled inside the Androscoggin Bank Colisee. Bureau has been a fixture in central Maine hockey circles for decades and had let it be known that he was retiring at the end of this season.
“I’ve only known him for four years, but I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. That’s how close we are,” Cunningham said.
“I’d been thinking about it for a long time. It was a great feeling to share that with him.”
It was a telling gesture by Cunningham, the Maine Sunday Telegram boys’ hockey Player of the Year. His career culminated with 251 points and that elusive championship. Yet it was his sportsmanship, not his statistics, that defined him.
“Chase did not care about individual numbers. Chase wanted to win the state championship, and that’s what drove him to be the best he could be and to make everybody else around him better,” Messalonskee Coach Mike Latendresse said.
“As great of a hockey player as he is, he’s an even better person. I really enjoyed being around him all this time.”
Cunningham put on skates at age 3 when his father, Butch, started taking him to the rink at Colby College. Butch Cunningham attended Messalonskee in the 1980s, before it fielded a hockey team, so he had to focus on basketball. But his sons inherited his 5-foot-7 stature, so Butch figured hockey would be a better outlet for the youngsters.
Was it ever.
Jared followed Chase two years later. Chase played hockey every chance he got, including for the Portland Junior Pirates and Maine Moose, and in fall leagues and summer tournaments.
By his freshman year at Messalonskee, Chase was ready to contribute. The Eagles reached the Class B state final his sophomore and junior years, losing to Greely both times.
Coming so close twice wore on Cunningham and his teammates, who now included Jared.
“We had a little talk going into his senior year and I said, â€˜This will be the last chance to play hockey with your brother,'” Butch said. “He gave up golf.”
Instead, the team dedicated itself to grueling offseason workouts. When the season began, the results were obvious.
“We beat Bangor the first game of the year. That really just gave us confidence that we know we can play with anybody, and we did. We beat Falmouth,” Cunningham said.
The Eagles romped through the playoffs, finishing a 21-0 season with a 6-1 victory over Gorham in the state final. Cunningham scored his 100th goal on a beautiful individual move.
It’s a gaudy number. But it’s not as important to him as Messalonskee state championship.
“It was unbelievable, the best feeling I’ve ever had in hockey,” Cunningham said. “I try to look in the paper as much as I can every day, just to look back on it.”
Cunningham doesn’t intend to play hockey in college. He will attend Kennebec Valley Community College and wants to work for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Fishing and hunting are longtime passions.
“I kind of want to get on with my life,” Cunningham said. “I know I ended on a high note. That’s where I wanted to be.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: MarkEmmertPPH