It's a chilly winter in Maine, but the North Yarmouth Academy Panthers are warmed up and taking shots, ready to face a rival from the Boston area. Steve Lechance, from Minot, Maine is watching the hockey game in the stands above the rink with other fans at the Travis Roy Ice Arena. His son Trevor is a sophomore who plays on the team with Oliver Wahlstrom (right), or Oli as he's known to his friends.
Lechance says it's a competitive league and the recent media attention on the young hockey player has people talking. "It's amazing to see him competing four and five years above his level of play, which is pretty unbelievable," he says. "So, yeah, it's a lot of fun to watch."
Lechance says there's only one way to describe Oliver Wahlstrom: a phenom. And that's why he supports Oliver's decision to commit to UMaine and accept a full scholarship.
"It's a D - 1 scholarship, and that's what all these kids - that's the main goal, all these kids," Lechance says. "That's why they're playing prep hockey. That's what they're trying to achieve, and the fact that he's achieved it, as a seventh-grader, is just remarkable."
Sophomore defensive player Jake Rasch agrees. "He's a great player and he knows the game really well," Rasch says. "He deserves everything he's getting."
Back on the ice, Oliver has scored two goals by the second period, and the Panthers take an early lead in a game that they eventually win.
The team's record is 4-15, but they have games left to play. Oli has played in 15 games, and has 7 goals and 9 assists and 16 points for the season.
After the game, Oliver is upstairs in the training room, stretching with a teammate. He says he started skating when he was only two years old. "My Dad put me on the ice, and it took me a year to get up on my feet."
Oliver is aware of the pressure that comes with his early success. But instead of getting psyched out, he says it has the opposite effect.
"I like how I am becoming a big target on the ice," he says. "That pumps me up, that motivates me, and I just work, work. That's all I can do."
As to when he knew he was a really good player? "It probably hit me when I was about 8 or 9." He says he wants to play hockey in college, win a world championship and get to the NHL, something that doesn't seem too far-fetched for people familiar with his work ethic.
Head NYA Hockey Coach Eric Graham says it's unusual to have a player on the team that has five more years left to play. And even though Oliver isn't old enough to drive and probably won't be going to the prom for several more years, he fits in.
"Our guys are very accepting of him," Graham says. "He comes and he works hard in practice, so it's pretty easy for them to kind of see that."
But some people say a verbal commitment to a school when you are so young is tricky. Alfred Yen, professor of law at Boston College, has written an article on the topic and experienced it firsthand when his son was recruited to play soccer.
"The primary risk for the young athlete is the changes that come in a young person's life between the age of 13 and the age of 18," Yen says. "He may or may not still want to play hockey. He may or may not want to still play hockey at the University of Maine. He may decide that his academic interests would be better served by going to a school that had different academic programs."
Officials from the University of Maine system declined comment for this story. NCAA rules prohibit anyone from the University from speaking on the issue, including coaches. The rules mean that Oliver cannot be called until the summer after his junior year, and he can't sign a letter of intent until spring of his senior year. Professor Yen says either side can change their decision after a verbal commitment, but that's uncommon.
Coach Graham understands it can be controversial, but he's comfotable with Oliver's decision. "It's kind of in the past now. He's just focused on how he's going to get there," Graham says. "That's the biggest thing for me and what I see out of him. This isn't a big deal to him. He just wants to get it behind him and now get to work and get better."
Joakim Wahlstrom, Oliver's dad, played hockey in Sweden and also at UMaine. He's also aware of Oliver's potential.
"All I can do - we can do - as parents, is just to kind of put things in front of him to keep him challenged," he says. "And that's all we do - you know, drive him and drop him, and have him practice and find good teams that he can play on."
He says Oliver is a humble kid who enjoys fishing, golf and hunting, and who's had an unusual passion for hockey since he was a little boy. That's one of the reasons his coach says he likes UMaine so much.
But, Joakim Wahlstrom says, the most important thing for his son right now is having support from his community of friends, teachers, coaches and other parents. "It takes a lot of people to bring up a kid - it's like a village."
A lot can happen in the next five years, and there are no guarantees of a career in the NHL, but supporter Steve Lechance says right now, "people around should come and check it out and get to see him, and say, 'Hey, I got to see that kid when he played at NYA,' you know - 'cause some day, he will be in the NHL."
Photos of Oliver Wahlstrom: Creative Images Photography
Photo of NYA Panthers at play: Caroline Losneck