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William Hyland of Lisbon is a lifelong sports fan who hosts the podcast Home-Field Advantage.
For a state buried deep in the northeastern corner of the country, one would think Maine would be heralded as a haven for a sport associated with the long days of winter. But when compared with Minnesota or Massachusetts, Maine’s impact on the sport of ice hockey is often overlooked because it’s not as widespread or apparent. However, you don’t have to look much further than the past 12 months to witness the contrary.
On the amateur side, the Pine Tree State is home to dozens of youth hockey organizations ranging from Biddeford-Saco all the way to Aroostook. This serves as a primary development system for strong high school programs like Lewiston and Brewer, as well as those who may end up playing at private schools like Hebron Academy or North Yarmouth Academy.
And then, of course, there’s the under-the-radar collegiate game. Smaller Division III programs like the University of New England and Bowdoin College posted strong seasons in 2022-23, with Bowdoin winning the men’s NESCAC championship and UNE boasting a trip to the national semifinals from its men’s team.
The University of Maine men’s program also is in great hands under Coach Ben Barr, who is well on his way to reviving the successful reputation in Orono created by coaches Shawn Walsh, Tim Whitehead and Red Gendron, among others.
In fact, April 3 marked the 30th anniversary of when the Black Bear team that went 42-1-2 under Walsh won their national championship, the first in team history, against Lake Superior State. The team, arguably one of the greatest of all time in college hockey, included players like Paul Kariya and Jim Montgomery. Kariya became a household name in the National Hockey League and is widely considered one of the best hockey players ever to play at the collegiate level.
Meanwhile, Montgomery was hired last year to coach the local favorite Boston Bruins, who are further littered with Maine connections as well. Backup goalie Jeremy Swayman, albeit born in Alaska, played college hockey at Orono and won the Mike Richter Award for best goaltender in the country back in 2020. Newly acquired forward Garnet Hathaway hails from Kennebunkport and has made a tremendous impact on the team’s depth scoring as they head toward the playoffs.
In the first round of those playoffs, Boston is likely to play either the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers or New York Islanders, all of whom have Maine connections of their own. Brian Dumoulin of Biddeford helps anchor the Penguins top defensive pairing. Ryan Lomberg, Florida’s third-line left wing, played parts of two seasons with the Black Bears from 2012-2014. And lastly, Islanders forward Oliver Wahlstrom grew up in Cumberland and was a phenom at NYA before attending Harvard University. His father, Joakim, played at UMaine from 1988-1990.
The Pine Tree State connections within the NHL are seemingly endless, especially when considering that the Bruins and Maine’s only pro-hockey franchise, the Maine Mariners, extended their affiliation agreement on April 3. This gives Mainers the opportunity to see affiliated professional sports in a similar fashion to that of the Portland Sea Dogs and Maine Celtics — an aspect of hockey truly missed for a couple years when the Portland Pirates left town in 2016.
And who could forget that Lewiston-Auburn is home to two junior-level ice hockey teams and was once the only American city to have a franchise within the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, perhaps the best amateur league in all of Canada.
So, whether you reside in the Portland area, Greater Bangor, the Twin Cities or anywhere in between, this state has a bubbling affinity to and relationship with the fastest sport on ice — even if it may be deceiving or frequently passed over. It’s likely that I forgot a few more connections of my own, but perhaps that’s the point: There are almost too many to count.