Not all doom and gloom for Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal boys hockey

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-25-2023 8:02 PM

WEST LEBANON — It was nearly 10 p.m. on Monday as the Lebanon-Stevens-Mount Royal boys hockey team practiced at Campion Rink. Despite the late hour, the Raiders lightheartedly chugged through drills, preparing for their season’s final two games.

As center Tyler “Tank” Christian stood at center ice, his jersey tucked under the front of his shoulder pads, a teammate reached around from behind and rubbed his exposed belly, eliciting a deep laugh from the bulky junior.

On the rink’s far side, freshman forward James Stevens glided alongside Zander Koff with an arm draped over his classmate’s shoulder.

The former, an experienced player, offered advice and encouragement to the latter, who’s in his first hockey season. Seconds later, sophomore Keegan Dannehy slid past them on his rump, wielding his stick as if it were a kayak paddle in celebration of a goal.

The workout wound down with a shootout drill, the enjoyment heightened when sixth-year head coach Jim Damren was goaded into taking a turn, his successful shot prompting hoots and hollers.

The team’s record? 1-19-0.

“The record stinks and it’s tough on the players and coaches, but they’re working hard and getting better,” said Damren, a member of Lebanon’s first varsity in 1978, who guided the Raiders to the NHIAA Division III semifinals in 2021 and 2022.

“We’ve had some tough losses and I give the kids all kinds of credit, because they keep showing up and doing what we ask.”

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LSMR graduated six regulars last year, including its leading scorer and a three-year starter in net. Those losses were compounded when the team’s top two returning players, wing Will McGee and defenseman Jack Clary, exited for junior hockey.

Promising defenseman James Barnett switched to Nordic skiing, and three other players quit before this season’s first game, by which time the team featured only three seniors and seven freshmen among its 16 players.

The Raiders were without a goaltender until shortly before preseason practice started, so the arrival of freshman and Hartland resident Evan George from via transfer from Hanover High was crucial.

Diminutive but with a fiercely competitive nature, George is backed up by classmate Logan Mason, who’s new to the sport. The pair have visibly improved under the tutelage of volunteer assistant and onetime Norwich University goaltender Jim Mooney.

The team’s schedule and untimely absences haven’t helped its record. The only two opponents in the 11-team division the Raiders didn’t face this season are a combined 6-24-2.

The Raiders lost two games while their top two forwards were sidelined simultaneously. Junior Paddy Mooney was ill and classmate Christian was suspended by Stevens High for unauthorized use of the building’s elevator.

Rescheduled games led to LSMR having to play four times in six days. Two contests later, it lost George to an injured back suffered during its second overtime loss. That meant Mason, in just his ninth week of hockey, made starts in goal against Berlin-Gorham and Belmont-Gilford, which are a combined 20-4.

“I asked him before the game at Berlin if he’d brought a change of underwear,” Damren joked.

LSMR also faced an emotional hurdle last month when popular Lebanon High teacher Susan Lewis, the mother of players Andrew and Keegan Dannehy, left her job because of a cancer diagnosis. The Raiders wear helmet decals with her initials.

“For kids who have had success in hockey or other sports, it’s tough to go through a season like this,” said Damren, whose team lost at Kingswood on Wednesday and played its season finale on Saturday against visiting Sanborn-Epping (6-9-2), losing 4-0.

The nadir came during mid-January, when the Raiders lost six games by a combined 40-5. At Belmont-Gilford, the Bulldogs left their best player on the ice to score six goals during a 12-1 rout.

Not long later, however, LSMR beat winless Laconia-Winnisquam-InterLakes and then dropped three one-goal games in 10 days.

“We’ve played some teams tougher the second time around,” Damren said. “The biggest issue we have is getting hemmed into our end and we can’t get the puck out. We don’t have a lot of bodies, so the kids get tired when we have extended time in our own zone.”

Lebanon’s lack of experienced depth means it deploys two lines against foes often using three and four. The Raiders tend to erode as games progress, but their players show resilience and skill development and play rough if needed.

Christian, who also competes in football, bowling, lacrosse and track and field for Stevens, is a force of nature when he’s fresh. Picture a gridiron guard repeatedly rushing the puck and the collisions that tend to follow. Another Stevens student, senior defenseman Ryan West, plays a contagious, all-out style despite a lack of stature.

Mooney is a weight-room devotee with the team’s hardest shot and has bettered its accuracy. Wings Maddox Castro, a junior, and James Stevens bring big frames and raw talent, and sophomore forwards Nate Dube and Keegan Dannehy have displayed improved effort and flashes of physical play of late.

Andrew Dannehy is a reliable, four-year regular on the blue line, which also features vastly improved junior Gabe Ouellette, the team’s lone Mount Royal product.

“It’s been a fun season, even with the losses,” Christian said. “When we first started practicing, we couldn’t hit the net or make a single pass, but now we’re connecting and our new guys are showing tons of improvement. I think we’ve got a real shot next season at being good.”

The Raiders’ composition for future seasons might change. Lebanon athletic director Mike Stone said his school is working to bring Mascoma High into its co-op agreement in the hope of increasing the program’s numbers. Stone said a proposal to the NHIAA will be sent within days and that he expects a ruling by the governing body within a month.

In the meantime, LSMR’s players have gone from a loose grouping of teenage boys to an actual team. Cliques and finger-pointing have all but vanished, and there’s a clear sense the campaign has been worthwhile.

“At the beginning of the season, we weren’t close and we argued a lot,” George said. “But we’ve settled down, and the upperclassmen have helped us not yell at each other.”

Said Christian: “People didn’t think it was going to be that great of a year, and if you look at our record, they’ll think it turned out that way. But we’ve been working hard.

“We don’t want to see this program go straight into the ground. We want it to be around and doing well years after we’re gone.”

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

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