Dangle, Snipe, No Celly
The story of Junior Hockey’s newest folk hero
January 29th, 2022. Mount Clemens, Michigan.
The Metro Jets Development Program is hosting a regular season United States Premier Hockey League game against division rival Fort Wayne. The visiting Spacemen have earned an offensive faceoff in the late stages of the first period. Here’s HockeyTV announcer Matt Prieur with what happens next:
“So faceoff again to the left of Freddy Soderberg. . .
And won again by the Spacemen . . .
Noah Maine sidesteps Combs
Noah Maine top--shelf--on--Freddy--Soderberg!
After he dipsy-doodled around Austin Combs and Noah Maine the nineteen-year-old from Knoxville, Tennessee, his sixteenth goal of the season and the Spacemen up two to nothing”
Prieur goes crazy, as he should. Maine undressed this kid with a lethal toe drag, got back to his forehand, and stung one bar down. It’ll be one of the more celebrated goals of the USPHL season yet lost in the chaos of Prieur’s commentary is one key detail: Maine himself doesn’t celly. He simply meets his teammates in the corner for some fist bumps and #hockeyhugs and then skates back to the bench… who is this kid?
Noah Maine is one of the USPHL’s best players. A year ago, he was the league’s 4th-highest scoring defenseman, recording a cool 50 points off 20 goals and 30 assists. He’s off to an even better start this season. Through 10 games, he leads the Midwest East division in points with 25 (10-15--25) and ranks 8th among all Premier skaters in points per game with 2.50.In a league of 69 teams, there are seven players who are more offensively efficient than Maine, and over a thousand who aren’t. He is elite.
What makes Maine’s story even more impressive is the path he took to the top of the leaderboard relative to his peers. The guys ahead of him could be considered products of their respective environments. In places like Minnesota, Quebec, and Slovakia, hockey reigns supreme when it comes to sports, but that’s not the case in Noah’s home state of Tennessee.
The sport of hockey has had trouble latching on in the southeastern United States. Widespread growth of the sport in the South is impractical because A) it’s too warm and B) it's SEC country, football and baseball are king. Both the cultural and electrical bandwidth of the region have been keeping what the NHL views as an untapped talent pool stagnant.
As of 2019, there had only been 25 NHL players born in the South, and none of them were from Tennessee. The league’s 1997 expansion brought about both the Nashville Predators and a spike in statewide hockey participation, but during Noah’s early years, the Knoxville Jr. Ice Bears had trouble filling out a roster.
Noah has been skating ever since he got to the United States. He was adopted by the Maine family at four years old, and Friday night trips to CoolSports make up his first memories after moving over from Liberia:
“My family was already playing hockey. All I really remember is Friday public skates. I’d slide a lot in knee pads and slide into the boards.”
Noah went into the boards often, but each time he did there was always someone ready to scoop him back up. That’s the beauty of having nine sibling, three of which were older brothers who’d already began to develop the family’s reputation within the South’s burgeoning hockey community.
“There were a ton of them. It was always a ‘here they come’ type of deal when they’d get to the rink,” says Ron Rollman, a former-Jr. Ice Bears coach and father of RJ, one of Noah’s first teammates.
“When we rolled in here, (Knoxville) was a small city, one program, one rink. We had to combine certain birth years because they were thin, just a handful of kids,” continues Rollman.
The creation of said combined teams was smooth, but it unintentionally created some comical size disparities between teammates, most notably that between RJ and Noah.
Noah was the biggest ‘02, and RJ was the smallest ‘03. . . can you tell who’s who?
Regardless of the laughs, looks, and chirps the pair got pregame, the two were great once the puck dropped. Noah played center and RJ was one of his wingers. Both boys were fast, so they developed quick chemistry by pushing together on odd-man rushes, skating by opposing defenders with ease. They had a ton of success in their PeeWee and Bantam days, so much that Noah was advised to tryout for a Tier I, TPH team in 2017. RJ stayed home for another year of Bantams while Noah embarked on a journey to become his family’s next great hockey player.
The Maine name is known throughout the South’s hockey circuit not just because of their quantity but because of their quality, too:
“They’re good boys, good players, tough,” says Rollman. “Noah was the cream of the crop.”
Noah's first step towards the show was Tier I triple A puck. He spent his first two seasons of true, competitive hockey with TPH Thunder in Nashville.
Those years in Nashville were crucial. They helped Noah develop as a player against tougher competition, and gave him a better understanding of the commitment it takes to make it through the meat grinder that is the junior hockey circuit.
Maine commuted from Knoxville during his first season with Thunder, but moved to Nashville full-time, billeting with the family of one of the program’s youth coaches in his second year:
“(Billeting) was fun. I stayed with my cousins for a few months before switching over to a different house with two other teammates. It was nothing crazy, they were farm people with chickens and pigs. . . They had little kids, too.”
Maine was doing well adjusting to life as a “pro” amateur player. He’d been homeschooled growing up so the transition to living outside Knox County was easy. He could do his lessons from wherever. After two solid years with the Thunder, Noah aged up to U18. The logical next step for players his age is the North American Prospects Hockey League but given that Tennessee does not have a NAPHL team, Maine was forced to uproot and leave the Volunteer State for the first time.
He landed with the Tri-State Spartans; a Triple A team based out of Indianapolis. Things with Tri-State were rough at first, but the experience allowed Noah to grow as a player even more. The team’s short bench required him to play defense for the first time and he took a liking to the position. In two seasons, Maine became one of the NAPHL’s better offensive-defenseman and Tri-State reached the top 40 of the national rankings.
Just like with the Thunder, however, the success was somewhat short-lived. Noah aged out after a pair of quick seasons in Indy and headed back home in the summer of 2021, unsure of what was to come next.
Luckily for Maine, the Knoxville hockey scene had started to grow a little more during his time away. The city had a new skill development center called Pro Vision, and Noah began training there with Marcus Ortiz, the founder of MO2V8 Hockey Systems.
Pro Vision’s synthetic surface is about a quarter of the size of a true hockey rink, but that’s all Noah needed. PV had nice gym equipment and a couple of skating machines which he used to improve his stride. After watching him in a few pickup games on Pro Vision’s half sheet, Ortiz was impressed. He contacted a former coworker in Fort Wayne Spacemen GM John Finch and got Maine’s name on a summer skate list. . .
“I knew he was gonna be a gamechanger within five minutes.” says Spacemen head coach Lincoln Kaleigh Schrock, reminiscing on Maine’s first skate at Parkview Icehouse in Fort Wayne.
“What stood out was his patience with the puck. He does a good job of slowing the game down,” says Schrock, who speaks adamantly on how difficult Noah’s patience is to teach.
Noah maintains a calm demeanor outside of hockey too. Through hectic family gatherings and a revolving door of teammates and schemes, he has remained quiet and introverted.
#20 being a man of few words has become a bit of a running gag in the Spacemen locker room. Last season, the team gathered at Coach Schrock’s home before departing for winter break and had a Secret Santa gift exchange. They drew names out of a hat and got each other gag gifts-- mostly bargain bin stuff, but then it was Noah’s turn in the spotlight.
Maine slowly opened his present, unveiling a blue paperback book titled: “How to Talk to Anyone About Anything.” Funny, Spacemen. Funny.
Noah gave it a bit of a chuckle and they moved on to the next player, but it wasn’t the last the team would see of James W. Williams’ communication skills piece.
A few weeks into the new year, Coach Schrock found himself walking the aisle on the team bus as the Spacemen headed to an away game. Most of the guys were listening to music or chatting quietly, but Noah had a book in his lap. A little blue paperback. He was reading HTTTAAA.
It’s clear he remembers what he read. He’s blossoming socially in his second season in Fort Wayne, and everyone around Noah is noticing:
“What we’re most proud about is he’s really come out of his shell, showcasing a sense of humor. (He) is well-liked and well-received,” says Schrock, who would also go on to call Noah one of the most unique combinations of skill and strength in all of Premier.
Prior to the 2022 season, he was offered a tryout with the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League, the USA’s only Tier II Junior league.
He didn’t make it. Scouts saw him as a defenseman with an offensive mentality, and felt that his defensive skills just weren’t there. The verdict brought disappointment, but led to a career altering conversation between Noah and Coach Schrock: What if he went back to playing forward?
“After he got cut, we had a conversation. I told him: ‘this is what people are saying, what do you think about playing forward?’” asked Schrock.
Noah loved the idea. He hadn’t played forward since his first U18 season with Tri-State, but knew he’d have immediate chemistry with at least one of his new linemates. Marcus Ortiz was sending Noah’s old buddy RJ up to John Finch and Co., strengthening the now very real Knoxville to Fort Wayne hockey pipeline.
The former Ice Bears have been awesome so far this season. They’re skating on the line and start the power play together. They’ve been a score/assist combo on the stat sheet four times already.
Their former program is beginning to excel, too. The Nashville Predators won over the Tennessee sports scene in 2017 when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games but won games three and four at home thanks to a legitimate sixth man in the Nashville faithful. The hockey world began to view Music City as a real hockey town, and the Predators began to invest in their home state. Despite previous relocation rumors, they were there to stay. They created a program that supplied gear to underfunded leagues across Tennessee, and kids started coming out in droves. The Ice Bears now have two teams at each age group, Bantam and below.
Like his time at CoolSports, Maine’s tenure with the Spacemen is going to have to come to an end sooner or later. What’s next? Noah isn’t quite sure yet. He was recently contacted by an interested NCAA DIII program, but he’s in no rush to make a decision. He’ll know when he knows.
As for Tennessee hockey, however, Noah’s a little more certain:
“It’d be cool if there were a triple A or USPHL team down there.”
What about an NHL player from Tennessee?
“Not impossible, it’d be neat if someone soon became that guy and helped grow the organization down there.”
He could be right. There’s a handful of Volunteers in NHL teams’ farm systems but no sure bets as of January of 2023. If the league uses its patience, however, there’s a pair of Knoxville-raised Spacemen making their way through the ranks, waiting for an opportunity. Will it be one of them? Only time will tell.