This weekend, the University of Maine men’s hockey team drops the puck on it’s 2019-20 season with a Hockey East matchup at Providence College. But judging by the chatter on social media throughout Black Bear Nation, you’d think the Black Bears aren’t even suiting up this winter.
That’s the sad reality in which this once proud program is miserably mired.
There’s no excitement. There’s no anticipation. Some fans have even confessed they wouldn’t mind yet another subpar year so the target on coach Red Gendron’s back can grow and grow.
The Black Bears are picked to finish eighth in the 11-team Hockey East. They’re opening the season against the team that this writer believes is going to be the best team in the conference, even though Hockey East’s other writers have picked Boston College, although I think that’s a reputation vote.
Flash back 10 to 15 years ago. A UMaine hockey ticket was a coveted item. If you wanted a single-game ticket to a marquee matchup, you had to stand outside the Alfond Arena ticket office in the bitter cold just for a ticket in the upper reaches of “The Old Girl”.
Even UMaine’s last NCAA Tournament team – the 2011-12 bunch coached by Tim Whitehead – drew near-capacity crowds. Not to mention a full bus trip, that I was on, to the NCAA Regionals in Worcester. Ohh if only Spencer Abbott was fully healthy that postseason.
There’s no enthusiasm around this program anymore. And it’s quite sad. What’s worse is much of the fan base has accepted mediocrity, which I find to be sad in an era where New England sports fans expect championship runs. 11 parades since the turn of the century will do that to you I guess. And we have a lot to do around here now so we aren’t reliant on Black Bear sports teams like we used to be.
Maybe the Black Bears will surprise everybody and get to TD Garden. If that’s going to happen, goaltender Jeremy Swayman is going to have to have an outstanding junior campaign, which could very well be his last in Orono. Hockey East is also mediocre enough from top to bottom – put Minnesota-Duluth or North Dakota in this league and they’d cruise to a championship – for Maine to play .500 hockey and have a chance.
Alfond Arena isn’t the home-ice advantage it used to be. But it’s up to the Black Bears to make it that way again, and entice people to leave their warm homes on cold winter nights to sit in a dilapidated, cold arena for 2 and a half hours. Let’s drop the puck and see what happens.
By Ryan McLaughlin