As difficult as it is to concede, the University of Maine hockey program is not what it used to be. After beginning the season with three ties to very good teams, things were looking up for the Black Bears. But, seven straight losses have put the program in the hot seat.
After enjoying the success from the early ’90s to the start of the new millennium, the program has seen some changes in personnel, as well as economic factors that have strapped the program.
After becoming a fledgling program in 1977, Maine struggled to get on the map in the ECAC. Shortly after moving to Division I, legendary Coach Shawn Walsh took over.
That was in 1984, and after two losing seasons. Maine went 23-57-2 in Walsh’s first two seasons, but all the while, Walsh’s program was recruiting top players from all over the world. With this, they would eventually be able to build a championship caliber team.
The success began in the late 1980s, when Maine began to make Hockey East and NCAA tournament appearances.
Maine first appeared in the NCAA tournament in 1986, losing to Michigan State in the first round. The first conference tournament appearance for the Black Bears came in 1988, when they beat Boston College 5-4.
The ‘90s were a time full of glory for the Black Bears, as they hauled in two national championships and two Hockey East Championships.
Not only did Walsh create a winning culture at Maine, he also had hands in all aspects of Maine hockey. He was involved with recruiting the right players and coaching them to meet the team’s needs. He also was able to get the best coaching staff to develop the players.
Walsh was also engaged with the fans. He would jump on the dining hall tables and encourage students to go to games, and the now-famous “Maine-iak” shirt and section were his ideas.
The program lost Walsh to a rare form of kidney cancer in September 2001.
With the program reeling from the loss of Walsh, Tim Whitehead took over. Whitehead enjoyed many years of success, going to the national championship game in his first season, but losing to Minnesota in overtime.
Maine’s troubles began in 2008, after the program’s last Frozen Four appearance in 2007. The team had to rebuild and regroup, and did not see the kind of success they were used to seeing in decades past.
Maine would eventually make their most recent NCAA tournament appearance in 2012, losing to Minnesota-Duluth at home in the first round.
Maine needed a change after the drought, and fired Whitehead in 2013, paving the way for an old Maine assistant coach, Dennis “Red” Gendron to be named head coach.
Gendron was able to secure a winning record in his inaugural season, going 16-15-4 (9-8-3 HE). The Black Bears would make it to the Hockey East Quarterfinals, but would lose to Providence College.
In the 2014-2015 season, Maine would slip lower in the standings, posting a 14-22-3 (8-12-2 HE) record and losing again in the Quarterfinals, this time to Vermont.
So what has happened to this powerhouse team? Maine was once the poster child for Hockey East, representing the best of the elite in NCAA hockey. Now they cannot even secure enough out of conference games to avoid playing non-conference games with Hockey East opponents.
The answer lies in the money.
Walsh was able to be involved with all aspects of Maine hockey, and he succeeded in part because of the financial support of the university. Gendron has the hockey resume to be just as successful as Walsh was, as he was one of the assistants under Walsh on the ’93 championship team.
What Gendron lacks is an athletic department that has the financial resources to back a successful hockey program. Maine hockey can no longer afford to go on lengthy recruiting trips or renovate their old facilities.
The University itself is facing a $7 million budget gap this fiscal year, and that is expected to grow to $7.2 million next year. Money is already tight across the board.
If the hockey program is to succeed, the administration needs to realize that success will come by finding ways to pay for recruiting trips and renovations.
It is hard enough to get recruits to visit Maine for hockey, but once they are here, the need to be impressed with the quality of the facilities as well as the people on the team. That, paired with the best atmosphere in college hockey, is a winning combination.
The problem is it has not happened.
Many of the recruits that would have agreed to come play at Maine 10 years ago are now going to Boston College, Boston University, Providence and even schools like Merrimack. Those schools have nice new facilities and a winning culture that is very appealing to young players.
Maine can only develop that winning culture if they can secure the right players for Gendron’s system. Not only the right players, but the best players.
Not all of the blame is to be placed on the department, although the financial side of things is a major contributor to the program’s struggles. The coaching staff has not been entirely effective in the last few years.
Instead of seeing improvement between the first and second seasons, things got worse for the Black Bears squad. Gendron and the coaching staff are running out of time to make an impression with the school, and another losing season might end in someone losing their job.
If that is the case, Gendron will likely get to stay, as the University has him under contract until the 2016-2017 season. It is more likely that some assistant coaches will be shuffled around.
At this point, there can be no predictions or speculations made about the future of the program. All that is known is that this team needs to start winning if this situation is going to be resolved.
More winning equals more ticket sales, which translates into excess money to be funneled back into the program. After that, Maine can renovate its facilities and make the school more appealing for players.
This is a hard cycle to break, considering every element is intertwined with the others, and not a good situation for a program that is teetering on the financial knife’s edge.