The Class A North division for southern Maine high school hockey will feature a brand new team with some familiar faces this season. Westbrook and Windham High Schools have agreed to merge their hockey programs into one varsity team, with numbers leftover to form a junior varsity (JV) squad, as well as two middle school teams. Both schools and communities are excited at the opportunity to further their respective programs, together, as Windham-Westbrook Ice Hockey (WWIH).
Communications director for the program Dave Lorenzatti spoke of the potential and concerns for the programs merging. "There are some great benefits in doing so, but there are some challenges that come along with it as well. A big challenge is creating its new identity and getting the word out to the communities, media and students. Since there are athletes from both communities, it's important to maintain the Windham-Westbrook locale of the name. Obviously, however, we can't keep the name of the Blue Blazes or Eagles anymore. The program and athletes will benefit greatly from the merger, or co-op as it's been called. We now need to let the communities know who we are and that we still need their support," he said.
WWIH varsity head coach Greg LeClair brings 35 years of hockey experience to the team. He is ably backed up by varsity assistants Matt Curran and Steve Pasquine. Coach Curran finished his college career at Stoneville University as one of the top scorers in the school’s history, and Coach Pasquine played club hockey at the University of Maine. JV head coach Zac Barrett played in goal before becoming a defenseman in high school, and then played club hockey at Ithaca College. Barrett will be assisted by Travis Grant.
"The staff complements each other well," said LeClair.
To get all the important information regarding this merger of two Class A teams, we asked Coach LeClair, WWIH organization president Randy Chenard, Westbrook High School Athletic Director Michael Connolly, and Windham High School Athletic Director Rich Drummond to engage in a Q&A.
How have the players taken to the merger?
"By and large, the players have just treated it like any other team they've ever played for. The major difference coming into the season is that for both schools, kids have always made the varsity roster because of the low participation numbers at both schools. For some players, there was a sense of uncertainty that they had not experienced before. When we announced the varsity roster there were a few loud exhales from the kids that were not sure where they'd end up."
What are the benefits of a combined program?
"The benefits are numerous. Added depth throughout the lineup, the addition of a JV team to allow kids to play at the level appropriate to them, player accountability, etc."
What's the biggest challenge you and your coaching staff face this season?
"The biggest challenge has been redefining roles for players that differ greatly from roles they have held previously. With both teams having limited numbers, a lot of kids were used to being counted on by their coach to play a more significant role. For some that is no longer going to be the case. It's a short term challenge that will iron itself out over time, but it can be hard for a player that has seen their role change dramatically."
How are you building a strong team out of a group of players who have been fierce rivals up to now?
"We've had to make it clear to the kids that there is one common goal for this team. To win games, make the playoffs, and see where it takes us. With that said, the kids were put on notice after a minor dust-up over the summer, that if they ‘couldn't play nice in the sandbox’ there would be a seat in the stands for them this winter. The kids took it to heart and we've had no issues so far."
Last year was the best season in the short history of Windham HS hockey, what do you expect from the combined team this season?
"We expect to take the next step. While we made the playoffs last year, we fell short of our goal of being an above .500 team. In the playoffs we essentially fought from the ropes the entire game, hoping to land a counter-punch or two that never came. This year, we again expect to be an above .500 team, and anything short of a playoff appearance will be a disappointment."
WWIH organization president Randy Chenard:
Why did both organizations decide to merge?
"The mission of the Windham Ice Hockey program has been to make ice hockey available to as many kids as possible. To do so, we needed to build a sustainable program that required the least amount of money from each family to play. Looking forward over the next several years, while the Windham program has been growing substantially, the number of kids that play hockey in Windham/Raymond wasn't going to be enough to reduce the costs to play, making it cost prohibitive for too many kids. Westbrook has had similar challenges with their numbers of players, so the merger made a ton of sense. We can combine hockey resources across both communities and give many more kids an opportunity to play."
How is it being received by players and parents?
"It's been great. Lots of these kids and the parents have known each other for years as the kids have grown up playing together in other youth hockey leagues so there was already built in comradery. Many Westbrook and Windham/Raymond kids had already been playing together at the middle school level for the last couple of years, so there was very little transition there. As for the high school kids...they began bonding as soon as they began playing together over the summer. Now that they are practicing together at 5:30 a.m. and facing off against other teams, they really seem to be gelling. Parents have been working together really closely to get the new program off the ground and running."
Westbrook High School athletics and activities director Michael Connolly:
Windham and Westbrook athletics are big rivals, how was this decision to merge reached?
"The conversation was initiated by Westbrook. Our participation numbers were such that we could not support a varsity team. The skill set of many of our student-athletes created a potential safety issue for many of the kids as they were being introduced to the sport for the first time at the varsity level. While we may have been best-served to follow a strictly JV schedule, this was not a fair option to the varsity-caliber players. I was aware that Windham’s participation numbers were also below average, coupled with the fact that we are neighboring communities and some of our middle school kids have played on a combined team, this opportunity seemed to be a win-win proposition for both communities."
How is the merger being received by other schools/programs?
"The community is very pleased with the merger. The student-body is excited to support a more competitive team and the players, themselves, are giving tremendously positive feedback about the experience, thus far. We are promoting this like all of our other programs. We have a strong social media presence and it will be utilized to support all of our athletic teams. I think the students will support this program as they do all of our other teams. They will be avid spectators and as success builds, so will the excitement surrounding it."
Windham High School athletic director Rich Drummond:
What is Windham HS doing to promote the program?
"Windham HS will promote hockey the same way we do with our other sports and activities. We use social media and notifications around school. We also rely on the programs to self-promote. From an equity standpoint, the athletic department has to approach promotion of teams on an even balance."
What can the schools and students do to support the program?
"From a support standpoint, attendance at games is important and cheering appropriately is more important. This team is one unit and supporting it as one is vital for the success of all. I'm very pleased with the work that has been done to provide an opportunity for our athletes in both communities. It’s a benefit for both schools and it’s my hope and intent that this relationship will prove to be a great success."
The team will play their home games at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus. This major group effort has this program ready for the 2015-2016 campaign.
Supporting the team by attending a game is the best way for the communities to help the program.
“The players feed off the energy in our home rink and with the added jump they get from it, makes it difficult for our opponents. If we play with discipline and tenacity, we are going to be a tough team to beat,” said LeClair.
"I think you'll see that be the common theme from everyone, myself included, is 'fill the stands',” said Lorenzatti. “We will be more competitive this season than we have in past years and now that we have the athletes fully engaged in the program, our hope is to get the student and community support by helping fill the stands," said Lorenzatti.
The team will be doing a bottle drive on New Year’s Day to help fund the program, so people are encouraged to save their returnables to help.
The excitement has been building as the team starts the season with two home games this week, Wednesday and Saturday, with Saturday's game at 7:50 p.m, vs. GNG/Poland/Oak Hill, at USM Gorham campus.