The sublime Maine Black Bears hockey team of a quarter century ago had it all. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the 42-1-2 national champions may have been the deepest team, when it comes to talent, the sport has ever seen.
But there was something else special about that team – its coaching and leadership.
The team faced unrelenting pressure, from pre-season through the championship. That was due, in part, to the disappointing way the 1991-92 season ended. That team was on track to the Frozen Four until Michigan State upset the Black Bears in the East Regional. That loss really hurt, plus Hobey Baker award winner Scott Pellerin graduated, and star forward Jean-Yves Roy decided to pass up his senior year.
On the other hand, Paul Kariya, Peter Ferraro, and Chris Ferraro – the core of an incredible recruiting class if ever there was one – were on their way to Orono, and the team returned many accomplished veterans, led by captain Jim Montgomery.
The expectations went right back through the roof. I remember Anaheim Ducks executive Dave McNab – who would later use a first-round pick on Kariya – telling me during a live WABI television interview early in the season that “this team could go undefeated.”
Managing all of this fell to the coaching staff and the captain.
Nobody from outside that locker room can really know, but here is my observation, having been embedded with the team as the radio play-by-play announcer: Montgomery was a great captain.
The other players looked to him for leadership, which he provided naturally. He certainly modeled attributes such as work ethic, determination, and poise on the ice. He was a mature and articulate spokesperson for a team that drew an uncommon amount of attention from local, regional, and national media. Nobody who knew Montgomery as a college student can be at all surprised that he has achieved such success as a college and junior coach, nor will we be surprised if the NHL comes calling one day.
My broadcast partner that season was graduate assistant coach Bruce Major, a former Black Bear standout himself. Bruce was a natural on the radio – knowledgeable, engaging, and very funny – and he provided me with wonderful insights into game-planning and other elements of the coaching staff’s work.
Of course, this part of the story begins and ends with Shawn Walsh. The architect of the Maine rise to prominence, he was equal parts brash and brilliant, and ’92-’93 brought out the best in him. Walsh enjoyed the spotlight, and his ability to handle the expectations and attention made it easier for everybody else. In fact, he made it fun.
Walsh’s eye for talent applied to coaches as much as players. His primary assistants were Grant Standbrook (then a former head coach) and Red Gendron (a future one). They had complementary styles and personalities, and credibility galore with the players.
Throughout his career at Maine, Walsh was consistently willing to share the credit with his assistants. His acknowledgement that Standbrook suggested changing goalies after two periods of the national championship game is well-known, but I also remember him telling me during an in-season interview that Gendron, then in his first year on the staff, was providing “great suggestions” on the bench during games. Real leaders say things like that.
Talent alone is not enough to make a team as great as the 1992-93 Black Bears. It took superb coaching and strong leadership, and the right people were in place to provide it.