LEWISTON — Norm Gagne figured fans would be pleased that his Lewiston High boys’ hockey team had won its first 10 games.

“Then, before a game, an older man comes up to me and slips a piece of paper in my hand,” he said.

On it were suggestions of which players should be on the team’s power-play unit.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Gagne said.

For Gagne, who coached the Blue Devils from 2004-08 and now coaches at Scarborough High, it was another reminder of hockey perspective in Lewiston.

“Until you live it,” said Lewiston High Athletic Director Jason Fuller, “I don’t think you realize how much hockey means to people here and how big it is to the community.”

It’s big.

And for Lewiston High and rival St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, that means an assumption of success.

“There are always higher expectations,” said Brad Berube, an All-State player who graduated from St. Dom’s last year.

St. Dom’s boasts of 24 boys’ hockey state championships. Lewiston has 20. The area is used to watching its native sons hoist the championship trophy.

But the Lewiston area is going through a drought it has never experienced since state championships began in 1927.

Lewiston has not won a state title since 2002, St. Dom’s hasn’t won since 2000. Edward Little of Auburn eased some of the pain with back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, its only state championships in boys’ hockey.

St. Dom’s reached the state final three of the past four years, but this is not an area that settles for second place.

“A lot of pressure, absolutely,” said Steve Ouellette, who resigned as St. Dom’s coach after last season.

The Lewiston-St. Dom’s hockey rivalry is one of the strongest in Maine high school sports. Kids who grew up playing youth hockey together often enroll at one of the two schools. Neighbors play on different teams, even brothers have worn opposing uniforms.

“That is what makes the rivalry so special,” said Scott Rousseau, a St. Dom’s graduate (1989) who went on to help build the Falmouth High program in a perennial contender. Rousseau has three brothers, one who played for St. Dom’s, one who played for Lewiston, and one who played for both schools.

Scott Rousseau played youth hockey with Jamie Belleau, who attended Lewiston and now coaches the Blue Devils.

“Nowhere else is the rivalry intertwined. The guy you’re playing against isn’t the guy from across the bridge. He’s the guy from across the street.”

Neither Lewiston nor St. Dom’s is struggling. In 11 of the last 12 years, one of those schools has reached the state championship game – only to lose.

The title dry spell is because of improved, growing hockey programs in other parts of the state, specifically greater Portland and Biddeford-Saco. And there’s a seemingly contagious case of bad puck luck.

“We could easily be talking about being a two-time state champion,” said Ouellette, whose Saints lost in overtime in the last two Class A state finals – 3-2 to Falmouth and 2-1 to Scarborough.

“You get into a one-game situation, get to overtime, it just takes one moment.”

For some, it does not matter that the Saints got close – they still do not have title No. 25.

“People in the hockey community of St. Dom’s were extremely disappointed that St. Dom’s did not win,” said Gene Keene, who was the school’s athletic director the past two years.

“God love the parents and the community – they all want their kids to win. It’s a great experience when it happens.”

Keene heard complaints about the program, second-hand and face-to-face. He said he defended Ouellette.

“He’s one of the best coaches I ever worked with in my AD career, extremely well-prepared and extremely knowledgeable … when you put the two best teams on the ice, anything can happen. We lost twice in overtime.”

Still, Ouellette, a 1988 graduate of St. Dom’s, resigned after last season.

“At the end of the day, there is a lot of stress,” said Ouellette, who remains in the rink as a fan of his three hockey-playing children, the oldest an eighth-grader. “It’s been nice being able to dedicate the extra time to watching their games.”

St. Dom’s is a possible contender this season, with a 7-6-1 record after a 3-2 loss Saturday night against Lewiston. The Saints have impressive wins over Falmouth, Biddeford and Cheverus.

But the powerhouse in Class A North is Lewiston (11-1).

The lofty expectations, which never really fade in this area, seem to be higher.

“There is an extreme amount of pressure on (Lewiston Coach) Jamie Belleau right now,” Keene said. “He does a great job. There are people saying he’s loaded and if he doesn’t win it, we’ll hear, ‘It’s the coach’s fault.’ ”

AN ‘ACROSS-THE-STREET’ RIVALRY

In the early years of Maine high school hockey, a state champion was not always determined by a title game. But when a title was handed out, it always went to either Lewiston or Waterville.

Then St. Dominic opened in 1941. Soon the Saints were dominating, winning 14 of 15 state championships from 1947-61 (with tiny Dixfield Academy upsetting St. Dom’s in 1958).

The school and local Catholic churches fueled the hockey fever by building St. Dominic Hockey Arena in 1951, funded in part by second collections at mass and volunteer help.

“It was a real community effort,” said Bill Ledoux, now 70 and a 1963 St. Dom’s graduate. “My grandfather was a plumber, and the company he worked for put in all the piping. Everybody donated their time and effort and, in some cases, building materials.”

The building burned down in 1956.

“That was my junior year,” said Dick Cote, now 78, and a former St. Dom’s goaltender. “We had to play our games at Bowdoin (College).”

Back then, Cote said, St. Dom’s would play only a few high schools – Lewiston, Waterville and Dixfield – along with prep schools like Hebron Academy, Kents Hill and Bridgton Academy, college freshman teams and even “seminaries from Canada.”

The arena was rebuilt in 1959. It was eventually sold and became the Central Maine Youth Center, and is now the Androscoggin Bank Colisee. The building held some memorable games, including in 1962 when Lewiston finally beat St. Dom’s 4-2 for the state championship.

“The building sat around 2,800 then and there must have been over 4,000 people there,” remembered Ledoux. Every single step was full of people. People could smoke at the game and you could hardly see across the ice.”

Both Rousseau and Belleau remember watching Lewiston and St. Dom’s as kids. The high school players were the stars.

“It was not uncommon for young kids to be standing outside the (locker) door asking players for broken sticks,” Belleau said. “I remember doing that. And if you grew up in this area, your goal was to play high school hockey.”

And win a title.

“Growing up, we always felt we could win a state championship,” Rousseau said.

If Lewiston or St. Dom’s did not win the title, then it was Waterville.

But elsewhere, hockey fever was being stirred.

EXPANSION AND THE END OF A DYNASTY

In 1973, a group called Yarmouth Youth Hockey began. It would eventually merge with a group from Portland and call itself the Casco Bay Hockey Association. North Yarmouth Academy opened a hockey rink in 1975. A little farther south, Biddeford Ice Arena opened, also in 1975. Portland had the Riverside Arena before building an arena in 1985.

More kids were lacing up skates and when a professional hockey team, the Maine Mariners, began playing in the Cumberland County Civic Center in 1977, the sport began to boom.

“It all starts with the feeder system (of youth teams),” said Dick Robert, a St. Dom’s grad (1965) and an assistant coach for 21 years.

“We had one of the better programs in the state and people copied us.”

A second classification (Class B) began in 1977, with Biddeford beating Gardiner for the title. But the same three teams – St. Dom’s, Lewiston and Waterville – dominated Class A until North Yarmouth Academy broke through in 1985, beating Lewiston 2-1 for the championship.

NYA and Lewiston reached the final again in 1989, Belleau’s senior year. The game went into overtime, tied 2-2.

“We were the underdogs in that game, despite the conventional wisdom and expectations of Lewiston hockey,” Belleau said. “It’s something me and my buddies still talk about.

“I remember where I was standing when they scored in overtime. I was at the top of the circle when a (NYA) kid got the puck at the wall and threw it to the net. It deflected off the defense- man’s skate and went in.

“Such is high school hockey.”

NYA won two more titles (1997 and 1998), although the regular trio of Lewiston, St. Dom’s and Waterville won their share. Edward Little High – coached by Belleau – won titles in 2003 and 2004.

Then the dominance ended. Cheverus High, led by some of the best players coming out of the Casco Bay youth leagues, beat Lewiston in back-to-back state finals in 2005 and 2006.

Lewiston got back to the title game the next two years. But this time Biddeford came out of the West region and won.

Waterville earned one more title, in 2009, and Biddeford won again in 2010.

In 2011, Lewiston featured a powerhouse team, with Belleau as head coach. One key addition was Colt Steele, who left Lewiston to play in prep school and then junior hockey but returned to play his senior season.

“Figured I’d go back and have a chance for the state title,” said Steele, who is now playing club hockey at Liberty University.

Lewiston was heavily favored over Thornton Academy, making its first state final appearance. But Thornton had a hot goalie (Jay Finch, with 35 saves) and the game was tied 3-3 going into double overtime.

Then, Belleau saw another puck bounce off the boards, get sent toward the net and tipped in.

The drought continued.

“It’s been tough,” said Fuller, the Lewiston athletic director. “There’s a couple St. Dom’s felt they should have got. There are a few we felt we should have got. The one we lost to (Thornton) was a heartbreaker for us. We had a great team.”

Thornton beat St. Dom’s the following year. Then Falmouth emerged, first beating Lewiston (2013), and then St. Dom’s (2014). Scarborough won its first title last year, handing St. Dom’s a second straight overtime defeat.

“I’m still not over that game. It’s a haunting thing in the back of my mind,” said Berube, who graduated from St. Dom’s last year and is now the school’s junior high coach.

St. Dom’s has gone through changes – it moved its campus from Lewiston to Auburn in 2002 and now plays at nearby Norway Savings Bank Arena instead of the Colisee – it is still hockey-immersed.

“You better believe it,” said Keith Weatherbie, the new St. Dom’s athletic director.

Weatherbie, 71, was once the longtime athletic director at sports-rich Cape Elizabeth.

“This is more than anything I ever experienced at Cape Elizabeth, in any sport. The passion for hockey in this area is just unbelievable.”

EVERYONE KNOWS IT ALL

Enrollment in grades 9-12 at St. Dom’s has dropped from 341 in 2006 to 197 last year (compared to 1,318 at Lewiston). But nearly a third of the high-school aged boys play hockey, with 32 players on the varsity and junior varsity.

“Definitely, when you go to St. Dom’s, expectations are high,” Berube said. “But it’s good. It makes you work harder.”

But can those expectations bring a false feeling among the fans – whether they be from Lewiston or St. Dom’s – that they should always win?

“Our fans are passionate,” said Fuller. “I’d rather have people invested than not caring and not wanting to be here. It comes with some drawbacks. Everybody’s played (hockey) so everybody thinks they know it all, so you have those moments where people think the coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“It happens in every sport, at every school, but it happens a little more in this area.”

But the Lewiston area no longer has a monopoly on powerhouse teams.

“People think we’re the only ones with good players,” said Ouellette, the former St. Dom’s coach. “I don’t think people realize there are good players all over.”

Porky Boulet, 70, played hockey and football for Lewiston in 1963 and is an avid Blue Devils fan. Like others, he used to come to the Colisee just to watch practice. Boulet said it has been difficult for longtime fans to watch other teams win state championships. But Boulet understands.

“Hockey in Lewiston is big, but the South is strong and they now have a lot of rinks,” Boulet said.

Boulet watches a lot of Scarborough games because his grandson, Jake Brown – who used to play for Gagne at Lewiston – is now Gagne’s assistant coach at Scarborough.

“Scarborough has a real good team,” Boulet said. “But it’s time for Lewiston to win a state championship. I think this is the year.”

‘EMBRACE IT AND DEAL WITH IT’

While Boulet was speaking with several regulars at one of the Colisee games, Robert, the St. Dom’s graduate and one-time assistant coach, sat by himself at the other end, watching his grandson, Lewiston freshman Alex Robert, skate.

“I don’t like to sit with people,” Robert said, referring to the “1,000 assistant coaches” in the stands. “Everyone has an opinion. I prefer to sit and watch.”

Belleau, the Lewiston coach, knows he is expected to deliver a championship, with everyone having a thought about how he should accomplish that.

“I think I’d be disingenuous to think there are not several people out there questioning every move you make,” Belleau said. “It comes with the job, and you need to be able to embrace it and deal with it.

“Sometimes that’s difficult. The reality is, outside of this locker room there are expectations in the community. The kids are going to hear it. They are going to feel it. I think we’re being honest with them and explain what that means.”

Belleau said the players would see right through him if he tried to downplay the community’s expectations. The players already know it. They grew up here, too.

“There’s a lot of pressure. It never really ends,” said senior forward Griffin Wade. “But it can be good because you push yourself that much harder.”

Belleau’s philosophy is to explain the expectations, but then concentrate on what he and his players can control.

“All we can do is focus on what we can do to get better every single practice, every single shift, every single game,” Belleau said. “The best way to deal with (expectations) is to feel confident you’re doing everything you can in the locker room with the kids and trying as best as you can to help those kids get to the level they want to get at.”

To give Lewiston more of an edge, Belleau brought in powerhouses from Massachusetts – Boston College High and Malden Catholic – for exhibition games this season.

“It let them see firsthand the level of detail those teams pay attention to,” Belleau said.

The Blue Devils’ one loss this season came at Falmouth on Jan. 7. Falmouth is now one of the premier programs in the state, with huge participation and two rinks in the town. But some Lewiston fans do not comprehend that.

“After the loss to Falmouth, I was talking to a relative who went to Lewiston in the early 60s,” said Keene, the former St. Dom’s athletic director, who also played hockey at Edward Little. “He said, ‘how could Lewiston lose to a team from a small town like Falmouth?’ They don’t realize other areas are developing hockey players.”

The Class A state championship game is March 5 at the Colisee.

“One of the things we have to deal with is this community expects Lewiston High School and St. Dom’s and, not to the same extent, Edward Little, to get to that game and win one,” Belleau said. “No doubt, when you’re involved in Lewiston hockey, there are heightened expectations. That’s part of our culture.”


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