Those of us who are old enough and lucky enough remember the winter of 1992-93 fondly. As I recall, it was sunny every day and the temperature was in the 70s right straight through. University of Maine hockey coach Shawn Walsh was always happy to show off his ability to leap over any building (even those big ones in Portland) in a single bound. After all, his team played 45 games and only lost once, despite playing under the constant pressure of off-the-charts expectations.
I like to think that this incredible team, which claimed Maine’s first NCAA championship, is the best there has ever been, but that claim is ultimately indefensible and it doesn’t really matter anyway. We know what we saw, and we have memories by the dozens. It is the best team I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even close. And the numbers tell the story of the most remarkable collection of talent ever assembled on one team.
Most fans remember the eye-popping statistics. Paul Kariya had 100 points and Jim Montgomery added 95 (on his way to 301 for his career). Cal Ingraham – who won the hockey lottery and got the third spot on that top line and delivered in a big way – scored 46 goals.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is not a single all-time record among them. Montgomery’s career total is fourth all-time, but Kariya’s 100 points do not crack the top ten for points in a season. Ingraham’s single-season goal total puts him in a tie for 26th. While they may not be records, none of those numbers have been matched in the 25 years since.
If you’re wondering: North Dakota’s Tony Hrkac (he of the “Hrkac Circus,” which rhymes) put up 116 points in 1987. Dave Rost, who played for Army in the 1970s, had 330 career points. And Mike Donnelly scored 59 goals for Michigan State in 1986. I can’t verify it, but it’s likely that Walsh had a hand in bringing old Mike to the Spartans just before he decamped for Maine to start this ball rolling.
The ’92-’93 Black Bears do hold two important all-time records – goals scored (292) and, most important of all, wins (42). Those numbers are all about the unprecedented depth on the roster (eight future NHL players including a Hall of Famer) assembled and coached by Walsh and his staff – Grant Standbrook, Red Gendron, and Bruce Major. And let’s not forget Bruce Crowder, who helped recruit much of the championship team before leaving to become the head coach at UMass-Lowell, where he gave the Black Bears a real scare in the Hockey East playoffs.
When it comes to depth and consistency, these are the most remarkable statistics of all: Six forwards, including three rookies, put up at least 50 points, a level reached by just 13 Division I players in 2016-17. Seven (including Mainers Eric Fenton and Mike Latendresse) scored 20 goals; the sport had only 31 20-goal scorers last year. That’s how you get to 292 goals in 45 games (6.49 per game).
As every sport, college hockey has changed in the last quarter century – Penn State led the nation in offense last season with 160 goals, 4.10 per game. It would be difficult to compare parity between eras, but we can say that it exists today, using last weekend’s 54 games as an example. Nine were decided by four goals or more, nine went to overtime, and 36 were decided in regulation by one, two, or three goals. That’s competitiveness across the board.
Goalies save more shots now. (Snow’s ’92-’93 save percentage of .913 would have put him at #26 nationally last year). Part of it may be due to better goalie equipment, but some of that advantage would be offset by the improvement in the attackers’ sticks and skates.
It seems more likely that the changes come down to coaching and player development. College coaches use video in ways unimaginable 25 years ago. (It is worth noting that Walsh was a pioneer in that area, back when VHS was the best technology available.) Other coaching techniques have likewise evolved, leading to an overall increase in the sophistication of systems and teaching processes. Youth and development-level coaches provide advanced coaching, beginning early, turning out players who are difficult to play against and who understand team defensive concepts.
As a related consequence, college teams have deep rosters, limiting opportunities for top teams to pile up points by exploiting matchups against lesser opponents. It’s not all that common to see any team score six goals in a game, never mind six-and-a-half per game for a whole season.
Some would suggest that it is simply a matter of there being less talent because there are so many more Division I teams. It sure does not look that way to me. The game is fast, and it’s well-played and well-coached. College hockey is a terrific and underrated sport, just as it was during that magical season way back when. I will be forever grateful for the incredible opportunity I had to see 42 of those 45 games (we did not broadcast the November tournament in Alaska), from a front-row seat.
By the way, you can find 2016-2017 stats here and here’s the source for the all-time record numbers. The latter is a rabbit hole. For example, a Gordie Peterkin had a 13-point night, including nine assists, for Rensselaer against Springfield in December of 1952. That came just a few months after Colorado College teammates scored two seconds apart against Michigan Tech. I hope somebody gave the clock operator a nudge after that second one!
P.S. Here’s one more ’92-’93 Maine stat that may have gone a bit unnoticed, but surely was not lost on the coaching staff and most fans: Chris Imes was +59, meaning he was on the ice for an astonishing 59 more even-strength Black Bear goals than goals surrendered. Plus/minus records don’t go back very far, but last year’s best in the nation was +33. Jim Montgomery’s national champion Denver Pioneers had a TEAM plus/minus of +58. I will listen to arguments for Andre Aubut, but +59 is enough to cement my belief that Imes is the best defenseman ever to wear the Maine uniform. And I am still irritated that he was snubbed for the 1995 Hobey Baker Award.