It’s almost time for ice hockey season at the University of Maine. With less than three weeks to go until their season opener against Quinnipiac University, the Black Bears have been preparing to start in a positive light, coming off an appearance in the NCAA Regional’s last season. Unfortunately, somewhat of a small plague has come across the team recently, with players becoming sick and incurring injuries — the most serious affecting sophomore forward John Parker, who suffered a leg injury in an accident at his home.
“It was at home while he was doing some work around the house with his dad. Sometimes in life those accidents happen. It’s frustrating for John; he was training really hard and excited about the season,” said head coach Tim Whitehead. “He won’t get [his cast] off until the end of December, and he probably will have crutches for another four weeks after that, so we’re looking at four months. Obviously there is a pretty good chance he is done for the year, but you never know. He is in great shape, he’s hungry and he wants to come back.”
Other injuries affecting the Black Bears are shorter term, with ankle injuries affecting freshman forward Ryan Lomberg and sophomore forward Andrew Cerretani and mononucleosis affecting freshman forward Devin Shore.
“Those guys will be out for a few weeks, Lomberg will more likely be a month because he is in a cast. Shore was just activated, but the problem with [mononucleosis] is that it can come back at any time. We’re anxious to get back on the ice again, but it’s part of the game, these things happen.” Whitehead said. “The hard part about college is that you don’t have a minor league team — you can’t make trades, you can’t call guys up. We understand that, so that’s why our focus is going to be on our healthy players, filling in roles and finding ways to help the team.”
The prevalence of illnesses and injuries on the team is not helpful to its cause. Whitehead pointed out that if he had to pick a point in time for this to happen, it would be early summer. But he insisted that even though these injuries are happening right before the season is started, his team will be ready.
“We’re ready to fight through this without a doubt. Guys are pumped up — the team came back in tremendous shape — so we’re not going to let anything stand in our way,” Whitehead said. “We’re trying to look at our team in these first couple months as if they are ready to play any position. Right now we have a couple guys out who are forwards, so we’re looking at our defensemen to maybe play at the forward position. [Senior defenseman Nick] Pryor, [senior defenseman Mike] Cornell, they have played a couple games at forward for us. We do have options for defenseman to move up.”
As for the healthy players, off-ice testing and dry-land conditioning started the first day of class. Captains’ practices have started on the ice, and the Blue versus Blue softball game to benefit Special Olympics Maine was also on their preseason agenda.
“It’s a good chance to open up the line of communication with the student athletes and the police department here,” Whitehead said, referring to the Blue versus Blue game. “It’s a good thing; this will be our third one. We’re excited about that.”
Coaching staff is limited with on-ice practice until the season starts on Oct. 6, so they rely on team captains to run their practices. They are allowed to have eight hours a week of off-ice practice with the team. Starting Sept. 17, coaches get two hours on the ice with the team. Whitehead says they are used to these rules, and the captains have benefited from the ice time with the team.
“Our captains have inherited a real good tradition of getting their team ready, and that’s how we look at it,” Whitehead said. “We tell them it’s their team and our seniors have done a really good job running on ice practices. We’ll be ready when the puck drops on Oct. 6. Our first day [in which coaches can run full-time, on-ice practice with the team] we actually have a game.”
With five players signing to NHL teams, this year’s team will have large roles to fill if they want to repeat a similar success to last year.
“It’s a process. You can’t replace those guys overnight, especially in a college format. We have to spear that around and make sure everyone is expanding their role 5 to 10 percent, and if we can do that with this real strong freshman class, I think we will have a real strong team. It’s going to take some time,” Whitehead said.
Two of the incoming freshmen have already been drafted — Shore and Hutton — but Whitehead says they will benefit from being drafted.
“They’ve proven to be very hard working guys already. I think it will help them. They’re drafted; they don’t have to worry about it. They have a team that believes in them at the next level, all they have to do is focus and improve,” Whitehead said.
UMaine will open their season with a weekend home series against Quinnipiac and University of New Brunswick on Oct. 6 and Oct. 7, respectively.