Taking one for the team

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-07-2023 5:08 PM

WEST LEBANON — Gabe Ouellette wasn’t among the three Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal seniors honored late last month before they played their final game for their co-op boys hockey team.

In retrospect, however, the tall, lanky defenseman should have been feted as well. The junior has also played his final contest for the Raiders, but under abnormal circumstances that will see him stepping away from the team to help the Lebanon-based program grow to a healthier size.

A three-year varsity player, Ouellette was the lone Mount Royal Academy representative on a 1-19 team this winter. Until roughly a month ago, the assumption was the Newbury, N.H., resident would skate his senior season with the Raiders, becoming the third brother in his six-child family to go through the NHIAA Division III program.

LSMR had only 14 skaters and two goaltenders this winter, about six to eight competitors short of what’s considered a healthy roster size. After the Raiders reached the 2020 and 2021 state semifinals, six players graduated, two left for junior hockey and four quit the team.

The Raiders’ program, which entered the fall with no experienced goaltender, was saved when Hartland resident and freshman Evan George transferred from Hanover shortly before preseason practices began. However, with only two other freshmen who’d grown up playing the sport and worries about how many more would arrive in coming years, the team’s future didn’t look bright.

Enter Hanover Wild youth hockey coach Dean Cashman, a former Hanover High assistant now working at the U14 level. Cashman’s also a Lebanon resident and realized there were more than 20 players from the Mascoma High attendance zone playing at various levels for the Wild and the Hartford-based Upper Valley Storm.

Cashman put a bug in the ear of Lebanon High athletic director Mike Stone: Can you add Mascoma to your current, three-way co-op arrangement so these youngsters have a path to high school hockey? Stone was amenable, but the NHIAA shot down his initial query, pointing to bylaws that allow no more than three schools in a co-op agreement.

Massachusetts allows four-team hockey co-ops and Minnesota doesn’t appear to put any cap on the number of schools represented on a team. One group from the south Minneapolis area has eight schools involved on a single girls squad.

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Not so in the Granite State, leaving Stone with a dilemma. Should he break the current, two-year co-op contract with Mount Royal in order to land Mascoma and its seeming supply of future competitors? Or should he stand by Ouellette and watch Mascoma co-op with Kearsarge-Plymouth, as Royals athletic director Steve Stebbins said his school would do?

Stone refused to cut Ouellette loose, saying he wouldn’t deprive No. 9 of a chance to finish his high school career in place. Ouellette’s parents, Allen and Kelly, had done everything asked of them in terms of helping the program and delivered three solid players and first-rate teenagers to the Raiders.

And then ... a surprise. Gabe Ouellette announced he would forgo his senior season with LSMR and it would be he who would join the Kearsarge-Plymouth team. The adults in the proverbial room stared at each other, asked the teenager if he was sure about this, and then looked at him and each other in rapt admiration.

High school sports exist to teach young men and women life lessons and how to best act in difficult situations. Here was a teenager displaying common sense and selflessness in the face of a perplexing administrative ruling.

“It’s an amazingly mature decision,” said sixth-year Raiders coach Jim Damren, the parent of three hockey-playing sons. “I don’t know that most kids his age would have made it.”

The NHIAA could still find some reason to reject the proposed Lebanon-Stevens-Mascoma co-op arrangement in the coming months. No one’s ever sure how its committees of coaches, administrators, superintendents and state school board members might act. And the new co-op team would have to compete in Division II because of its schools’ combined enrollment.

There are presumably concerns about precedents and recruiting implications and the potential assembly of shadowy “superteams,” but those around LSMR and Ouellette are puzzled that an exception couldn’t have been made in his case. A self-deprecating Ouellette points out that he’s not exactly the second coming of Bobby Orr.

“It’s rather silly, I think,” he said in his usual, quiet tone. “If I was really that good, we’d be in the playoffs now. I wouldn’t affect (next season’s) record that much. I’m not going to play for a prep school or a Division I college.”

Ouellette’s performance has steadily progressed. Small and tentative as a freshman, he watched games from the bench. Last winter, he contributed a bit as a third-line center. Over the summer, he sprouted to 6-foot-3 and 160 pounds and his athleticism bloomed. He played every game on defense for LSMR this season, competing hard and clean and comporting himself with honor every time he took the ice.

“It’s gratifying to see that he’s just like his brothers (Tristan and Liam), with his moral compass on point,” said Damren, who coached all three boys.

The Ouellettes have driven nearly an hour each time they’ve left home for Campion Rink. The Raiders sometimes don’t finish practice until 10:30 p.m., so playing with them has meant real sacrifices and stringent time management. Kelly Ouellette thanked Lebanon for its loyalty and aired her dissatisfaction with the NHIAA in a recent email to the Valley News.

“We’re disappointed that the NHIAA ... couldn’t make an exception for one year for one student-athlete,” she wrote. “It seems shameful that a 16-year old kid had to be the adult and make a hard choice instead of the NHIAA doing the right thing for all students by allowing a four-team co-op.”

NHIAA executive director Jeffrey Collins said the initial rejection of a Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal-Mascoma team could have been appealed to the organization’s executive council. He didn’t express sympathy for the Ouellettes’ position when asked about it.

“What is school-based athletics and what is not school-based athletics?” Collins said. “The council has said three teams is the max. If you allow one kid from one school and two kids from a different school and five kids from another school, at what point is it a regional team?”

Gabe Ouellette didn’t criticize the organization when asked about its decision.

“It’s sad, because I’ve loved the players and the coaches,” he said. “This past season didn’t have a lot of winning but it was still a lot of fun. I don’t want to leave, but there’s not much I can do about it.

“If I can help the team stay on its feet for future years, then I’ll do it.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.

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