February 2, 2013

On home ice, girls struggle 'to be seen'

With increasing opportunities at high schools across the state, more Maine girls are playing hockey than ever before. But those who want a college future in the sport often need to leave the state to have a fighting chance.

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Dakotah Clement, left, a high-school ice hockey player from Berwick, left her home and school in Maine to join the Boston Shamrocks hoping to attract attention from colleges.

Todd Huxley Smith photo

click image to enlarge

Megan Fortier decided to stay in Maine and still managed to earn a spot on the Colby College team. She plays on the Mules’ top line as a freshman.

Courtesy photo

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GIRLS HOCKEY IN MAINE

Sixteen high schools (or combined high school programs) in the state offer girls a chance to play ice hockey:

Biddeford

Brunswick

Cape Elizabeth/Waynflete

Cheverus

Falmouth

Gorham/Bonny Eagle

Greely

Leavitt/Edward Little

Lewiston

Mt. Ararat

Portland/Deering

Saint Dominic

Scarborough

Winslow

Yarmouth/Freeport

York

The JWHL features talent that attracts college coaches. Three times a year, all 12 teams gather for a showcase event. Each showcase is held in a different part of the country, in order to draw as many college coaches from that region as possible.

At a showcase in Hudson, N.H., three weeks ago, the Shamrocks played a game in front of about a dozen family members and friends -- and 15 college coaches.

"We go to a lot of showcases," University of Maine coach Maria Lewis said. "They get the best talent from different areas to play against each other."

TALENT 'IS GOING TO BE FOUND'

The JWHL isn't the only league to have showcase events. The travel youth teams also get together, attracting college coaches. The Connecticut Polar Bears, a unique girls-only youth hockey organization that began in 1985, puts on an annual tournament in late December, attracting about 140 teams of different age groups and talent levels.

For college coaches, the Tier I Under-19 and Under-16 teams are the big attractions. There are also Tier II teams, such as the Portland Junior Pirates, that play in the tournament.

Kent Hulst, the former Portland Pirates captain and now director of player development of the Junior Pirates, said there are not yet enough talented players in southern Maine to make up a Tier I team.

But even in Tier II, the Junior Pirates play in showcase events and even compete against Tier I teams.

"They get noticed," Hulst said.

Besides team showcases, there are individual festivals sponsored by USA Hockey throughout the United States. College and prep school coaches scout those regularly. No matter the venue, Hulst said a player who has ability will attract attention.

"If a kid is really good, she is going to be found," he said.

FOR MAINE, A FUTURE FULL OF PROMISE

The sport is taking baby steps in Maine. Some teams have feeder systems, with middle school and junior varsity teams. At other schools, players recruit their friends who have never played before in order to make up a full team.

"The level of play continues to improve," said Bob Blais, a coach at York High, one of the most established programs.

Venditti, the Colby coach, is hopeful. "I would love to have six or seven Maine kids on my team," he said. "I think we're getting there."

Bangor, with a vibrant youth program, appears ready to put together a high school team from its area.

Other youth organizations are establishing all-girl teams where none existed before. And more younger players are coming up through the system. According to Casco Bay Hockey president John Veilleux, 173 of his organization's 846 players are girls -- 20 percent. And those players are getting better.

"The large segment of our girl players are from 9 to 12 years old, which is a shift for us," Veilleux said. "The past few years, the majority of our girls skaters were in the 12 to 14 age group. Many of our 9 to 12-year-olds have been skating with us and playing hockey since they were very young, which likely explains the improving skill level."

As Maine develops its players, maybe they can push each other, rather than going elsewhere for competition.

"Right now, some of the higher end players do need to leave the state to develop and get better," said Lewis, the UMaine coach. "But that doesn't mean it will always be like that. As the numbers at the grass-roots level grow, and more players come in and start playing the game, then we can build some strong teams in Maine. Then you will have a state full of good players."

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

kthomas@pressherald.com

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH

 

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