The fact that the University of Maine men’s hockey team had a disappointing season in 2012-13 has been beaten to death in virtually every article written about them since the firing of head coach Tim Whitehead in April.
The fact the Black Bears went 11-19-8 overall last season with a 7-12-8 mark in Hockey East, were bounced out of the Hockey East playoffs with a 2-1 overtime loss to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in the first round and missed the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons has been mentioned a time or two.
This year’s UMaine team is ready to put all of that behind them.
“For me, it’s all about what we’re doing now,” first year head coach Dennis “Red” Gendron said. “Last year was last year. Whether a player was successful or not so successful is irrelevant. This is a new year, a new time. It’s about what we do now. All we want to focus on is getting better every single day.”
“We definitely, obviously haven’t forgotten about it,” said sophomore forward Devin Shore, who will wear an ‘A’ on his chest as an assistant captain this season. “We know we didn’t have the season that measures up to University of Maine standards. You can’t dwell on it, but you have to take the lessons you learned from it and apply it to this year.
“You can learn a lot more from losing than you can from winning,” he added. “Obviously we don’t want to stay there but we take what we learned from last year and use it this year and hopefully we have a lot better of a year.”
Shore had a team-high 26 points last season to pace the offense. He’ll need help from fellow sophomore forward Ryan Lomberg and junior forward Connor Leen – who each found the net seven times in 2012-13 – to fill the scoring void that is sure to be left by departed forward and captain Joey Diamond. Diamond led the team in goals with 14 last year.
“Obviously a player like Joe is hard to replace, as well as all the seniors, but I think the biggest thing we’re trying to change is making sure it’s a family this year and everyone’s contributing,” said senior defenseman Brice O’Connor, the team captain. “We’re going to need the freshmen to step up and pick up some of the slack on the points. Overall everyone needs to be pulling weight this year, and I think that’s how we’re going to make up for the players we lost, uniting and moving forward together.”
O’Connor will be called upon to fill the skates of departed defensemen Mike Cornell and Mark Nemec. He’ll be helped along the blue line by sophomore Ben Hutton, who led all UMaine defensemen with 15 points as a freshman. Senior assistant captain Mark Anthoine was second on the team in shots last season, and will try to turn more of those shots into goals to help make up for the loss of Diamond and company.
“I think the guys that had good years last year, they’re the type of players that can bring it back and do well [this season],” Anthoine said. “We have some good freshmen coming in too. I’m anxious to see how they play once the games get going because they’ve been battling hard in practice. Everyone this year seems prepared just because everyone is really excited to get the season going.”
Although a coaching change is never an easy thing to adapt to at first, the transition between Whitehead and Gendron has gone as smoothly. Gendron said in early September that he sensed “nothing but great enthusiasm from the players”, and was optimistic about how the team had adjusted to the change.
“I think probably the intensity that Coach Gendron brings to the ice,” O’Connor said when asked what the biggest difference was between Gendron and his predecessor. “You have to bring everything you’ve got every single shift otherwise he’s in your ear, you know? So I think that’s the biggest thing, is making sure you’re doing every single thing right every time you step on the ice, and off the ice as well.”
“It’s been a little bit different from the hockey operations point; different ways of practice and meetings and lift,” Anthoine said. “Coach Red, what he says is very powerful. Not that he speaks a lot, but when he speaks and when he’s in the room, his presence is felt and you listen to everything he says.”
One of Gendron’s biggest challenges this season will be getting a young roster up to speed and acclimated to his system. UMaine is made up of 28 freshmen and sophomores, although even the upperclassmen will have to adjust to a new system and coaching style.
“We’re definitely going to have to outwork every team. We won’t be able to trade three-on-one, three-on-twos with the other team. We’re going to have to play strong team defense and just high-paced hockey,” Shore said.
“Everything we do has to be fast; aggressive on the forecheck and in transition. Just being aggressive – playing with emotion and playing with passion and just playing high tempo hockey,” he added.
“I’m pleased. I see these guys working their tails off and trying to do absolutely everything that I’ve asked them to do,” Gendron said. “So I don’t have any issues with our team right now. They’re trying to give me what I’m asking for. What I don’t know, is if they really understand, yet, just how hard they’re going to have to work to get what they want.”
UMaine returns two senior goaltenders in Dan Sullivan and incumbent Martin Ouellette. The pair split starts in net in 2012 until Ouellette took over the majority of the action midway through the season. Gendron said he still hasn’t decided who will be the starter when the regular season begins Oct. 11-12 against St. Lawrence University.
“They’ll tell me who should play by virtue of their performance. It’s really that simple,” Gendron said. “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from or what you’ve done in the past. In the case of the goalies: stop the puck, we win the game and you get to play the next night – simple.”
The Black Bears were picked to finish eighth in Hockey East this year in the Preseason Coaches Poll Sept. 24. Although he’s aware how tough it will be to compete in the loaded conference, Gendron said he’s too concerned about the guys in his own locker room to pay attention to premature speculation.
“I think a lot of the teams in the conference are returning a lot of players,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t really studied it. I have too much to worry about right here with our guys to be concerned with what’s happening in the conference. I don’t care that we were picked eighth. I wouldn’t care if we were picked 12th. I wouldn’t care if we were picked first. It doesn’t matter. The games are played this winter – end of story.”
The University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Boston College tied for top honors in the conference in the preseason poll, and were followed by the University of New Hampshire and the University of Notre Dame who tied for the third spot. Providence College, Boston University and Merrimack College were selected fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively. UMaine was selected ahead of Vermont University, the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University to round out the preseason standings.
UMaine opens up conference play against the UMass Minutemen Nov. 1-2. The Black Bears begin play with an exhibition matchup with Dalhousie University Oct. 6. Gendron said he will use this Sunday’s contest to gauge where his team is at in their progression.
“I can’t wait for that game on Sunday because I’m going to learn a lot about our team,” Gendron said. “We’re going to see where our fitness level is at that point in time. That’s certainly something that we’ve worked pretty hard at. We’ll see exactly where we are in terms of executing our systems and what adjustments we need to make in terms of how we practice and if we have to adjust any of the things we do systemically or tactically.”
“I think, with a new coach, it’s a good opportunity for everyone to showcase their stuff and prove that they belong out there on the ice,” O’Connor said. “Our mentality this year is that we’re not going to do something unless we do it 100 percent, so we’re excited. We’re excited to get battle-tested. We’ve been working here as a team for the past couple weeks, and this is a true test to see where we’re at and evaluate ourselves and realize what we have to do from here.”
The bottom line for this year’s Black Bear team is to leave the past in the past. Their fresh start begins this Sunday at home against Dalhousie.
“If we stumble, we won’t make excuses. We’ll look at it, and then we’ll make the adjustments so we’re better next time out,” Gendron said.
“I don’t want these guys thinking about the past, good or bad, cause it’s not going to help us today, and it’s certainly not going to help us tomorrow.”