For the first time in decades, a youth hockey league is hitting the ice in the St. John Valley this winter. Credit: Courtesy of Kristen Henry

MADAWASKA, Maine — For the first time in decades, a youth hockey league is hitting the ice in the St. John Valley this winter, and the team is raising money to buy equipment for would-be players who can’t afford it.

Registration for the league — newly-dubbed the St. John Valley Muskies — opens on Monday for children ages 7 to 18. The group will play on the rink at the Madawaska Multi Purpose Center as soon as the ice freezes over and is safe to use, likely in early January.

The rising costs of hockey — from gear to travel to ice time — make it easily the most expensive and least diverse of the big four U.S. sports. But Muskies organizers are hoping to establish a different kind of league — one that is more financially accessible for aspiring players.

“With basketball, you just need a set of shoes whereas with hockey you need skates, stick, helmet, shoulder pads, knee pads, elbow pads, gloves and the list goes on,” St. John Valley Youth Hockey Association President Kyle Vachon said. “This is all about trying to be cost effective because we want every child to have the opportunity to play.”

The St. John Valley Youth Hockey Association formed this year in the wake of COVID-19, which provided a unique opportunity to revitalize the sport in the crown of Maine.

There are already youth hockey players in the St. John Valley, but most kids involved in the sport cross into New Brunswick to play. With ongoing international travel restrictions due to the pandemic, it was the perfect time to start a league on the U.S. side of the border.

“A lot of the kids have been at the mercy of the border being open to play hockey,” Vachon said. “We found this was probably the best time for us to capitalize and really try to bring the kids back to playing in the Valley.”

The league is targeting two types of players: those who were playing in New Brunswick and are now looking for more reliable rink time stateside, and kids who are new to the sport and may be seeking a low-stakes way to join.

While the Muskies are just getting off the ground, organizers have already begun fundraising in earnest to buy equipment for new players. The team is hoping to raise $10,000 for this season — all of the money would go to buying affordable equipment that it can lend or sell to players and their families at a reduced cost.

The GoFundMe is just getting underway — and there’s still a long way to go to reach, but Vachon said St. John Valley Youth Hockey has already received independent donations from local businesses and private individuals.

The league is also accepting gently used equipment to add to its library in addition to what organizers are able to buy.

Beyond equipment, Vachon is hoping the Muskies can be more accessible in other ways, too.

In 2021-2022, while St. John Valley Youth Hockey waits for approval from USA hockey to start a travel team, the Muskies will be made up of two programs: an intramural 3-on-3 league and a learn-to-skate program for players taking to the ice for the first time. Registration is open to all Valley children, regardless of gender and hometown.

In the future, the league wants to make agreements with Frenchville or Fort Kent as well, to rotate practices between different towns, and make practices easier to access for the entire Valley from Van Buren to Allagash.  

Vachon, who will be one of the league’s coaches, has played hockey from the time he could walk and competed year-round between ages 3 and 19. Now that Vachon has a son, he wants to help bring his passion to the community and be sure the next generation gets the same chance to fall in love with hockey.

“I realize that this is generally a basketball-oriented community, but there is still a lot of excitement in the sport of hockey,” Vachon said. “For me, it was the lifelong memories. You became such close friends with the guys you played with — girls too — that you remember those forever.”

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Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.