Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Maine

It is time once again for a tradition that is starting to reach into the realm of "time-honored" here at Without a Peer - our annual Know Your Enemy series. Over the years, we've profiled 42 of college hockey's 60 programs, and this year we add two more to that total as part of our 20-part set this season, including this week's entry.

RPI kicks off their regular season in this coming campaign with their first full-on trip to the middle of the Pine Tree State in nearly 23 years - for the first time since the Engineers' triumph in the 1993 Dexter Shoe Classic (incidentally, RPI's only in-season tournament championship outside of the Capital District).

Maine is one of the biggest strangers to the Engineers in all of Hockey East, trailing only Notre Dame and UConn in terms of fewest all-time games with RPI. Unlike the majority of Hockey East teams, Maine was not a long-time member of the ECAC before the creation of the conference, which has limited the exposure between the schools. With the exception of tournament meetings in 1993 (in Orono) and 1994 (in Troy), the only meeting between RPI and Maine since the split came in 2008 in a "neutral site" game in Portland. This year, the schools meet twice in one season for the first time.

Nickname: Black Bears
Location: Orono, ME
Founded: 1865
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 2 (1993, 1999)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2007
Coach: Red Gendron (4th season)
2015-16 Record: 8-24-6 (5-15-2 Hockey East, 11th place)
Series: RPI leads, 5-4-0
First Game: February 3, 1979 (Orono, ME)
Last RPI win: November 27, 1993 (Orono, ME)
Last UM win: January 6, 2008 (Portland, ME)

2016-17 games: October 7-8, 2016 (Orono, ME)

Key players: F Cam Brown, sr.; F Blaine Byron, sr.; F Brian Morgan, sr.; D Eric Schurhamer, sr.; D Mark Hamilton, jr.; F C├ędric Lecroix, jr.; F Nolan Vesey, jr.; D Sam Becker, so.; F Dane Gibson, so.; G Rob McGovern, so.; D Rob Michel, so.; F Daniel Perez, so.;  F Brendan Robbins, so.; D Patrick Holway, fr.; F Jake Pappalardo, fr.; F Chase Pearson, fr.; F Patrick Shea, fr.

Looking at the entire history of Hockey East, there's no question that Maine has played a significant role practically throughout its existence. The Black Bears are a part of that "Big Four" that has so often been bandied about with regards to the conference, along side their mortal enemies from New Hampshire and the other super-charged rivalry of Hockey East, Boston College and Boston University. They are, after all, one of only three schools in the conference that has won multiple national championships since its founding, and were the first of those three to be able to make that claim.

But that status overlooks humble beginnings and some difficult recent struggles.

Hockey at Maine has a far more recent beginning than basically any current program that has ever been considered a "powerhouse." With the exception of a handful of games played mostly against other teams from the state in the 1920s, varsity hockey's true start in Orono was in 1977, coinciding with the opening of Alfond Arena, the facility that houses the school's basketball program and where its hockey program still skates.

The Black Bears' first coach was Jack Semler, a Vermont grad who guided the team through its early years. Starting out in the ECAC's soon-to-disband Division II conference in the 1977-78 season, Semler got his charges to a competitive level fairly quickly, as Maine experienced its first 20-win season in just its second year with a 25-8-1 record that included a 5-4 win over the Engineers, Maine's first victory over a Division I program in its new incarnation. The Black Bears also recorded wins over Northeastern and Vermont that year.

Maine joined the ECAC as the league's 17th member in 1979, a move that split the previously unified conference into three divisions - East (the teams that would later become Hockey East), West (the other non-Ivies who stayed) and Ivy (nuff said). Within the ECAC East Division, the Black Bears were fairly competitive in their first two Division I seasons, holding their own among the long-time ECAC powers they were competing with, but their last three seasons were mostly disappointments, including a 1982-83 campaign that still ranks as the school's worst ever showing at 5-24-0. That year was bookended by two other 20-loss seasons,

When the Hockey East split came along, Maine really didn't have much of a choice but to depart for the new conference. Geographically distant from the ECAC's western contingent and academically similar to many of the new conference's members, they were simply an instant fit in Hockey East, even if that didn't pan out immediately. At about the same time, Semler departed the program in order to spend more time with his family, knowing that the new conference was going to bring with it a longer schedule and a larger commitment in order to put a quality product on the ice.

That brought into the picture the man whose name is linked more than any other to Black Bears hockey - Shawn Walsh. At just age 29, Walsh brought with him a fearless, can't fail drive that would propel Maine to the very top of the college hockey world, but not without becoming a polarizing figure whose legacy would ultimately become permanently ingrained into the program.

As the team transitioned to Hockey East under Walsh, their rough stretch extended to five consecutive 20-loss seasons as the Black Bears began their new conference existence more or less as doormats (23-57-2 in the first two years), with little indication of the powerhouse status they would gain in very short order.

That status got underway in the 1986-87 season, as Walsh in his third year guided the Black Bears to a 24-16-2 record and the team's first NCAA bid. For a team that had lost over 120 games in five seasons prior, it didn't seem like the beginning of a stretch of 20 out of 21 straight seasons with 20 wins or more, but that's exactly what it was.

Walsh's fourth year saw another stride - the team's first Hockey East regular season crown and a 34-win season, beating the previous school record by nine. This was the beginning of the apex of Maine hockey, wherein the Black Bears would win 30 or more games on the ice in 7 of the next 8 seasons. In their second NCAA appearance, Maine advanced to the Frozen Four for the first time, falling 6-3 to the eventual national champions, Lake Superior State. 1989 saw Maine's first Hockey East championship and another Frozen Four berth, this time ending with a 7-4 loss to Minnesota.

Following a 5-4 loss to Northern Michigan in the 1991 Frozen Four, the Black Bears looked like a national champion in waiting. They'd finished first or second in the Hockey East standings in four straight seasons and played in three of the previous four Frozen Fours. Returning most of its 1991 team, the Black Bears looked unstoppable. They swept the 1992 regular season and tournament championships in Hockey East, becoming only the third team to accomplish the feat after the 1987 and 1990 Boston College squads. Maine won 32 games, powered by Scott Pellerin, Jim Montgomery, Jean-Yves Roy, Brian Downey, Garth Snow, and Mike Dunham - all names that are now either well known in the annals of college hockey, as NHL alumni, or both. Pellerin won Maine's first Hobey Baker Award, but the Black Bears were upset in the East Regional in Providence, falling to Michigan State 3-2.

The expectations for the 1992-93 Maine squad were lower entering the season. They had a talented freshman class coming in, but losing Pellerin to graduation and Roy and Downey to the NHL, they were losing a good chunk of their scoring from the previous year. But that talented freshman class included Paul Kariya and the Ferraro twins, Peter and Chris. It was known that these guys were good, but no one could predict just how good they'd be. Along with Montgomery (the future RPI assistant and Denver coach), Snow (the future Islanders GM) and Dunham, they formed the heart of one of the most dominant teams in college hockey history.

Led by Kariya's incredible 100-point freshman season - which garnered him the first Hobey Baker Award for a freshman - and a 46-goal effort by Cal Ingraham, the Black Bears went 30-0-2 to start the season, losing their bid for an undefeated year in a 7-6 home overtime loss to Boston University on February 19, 1993. It would prove to be the team's only loss of the year, as the team went on to win its final 12 games, claiming the Hockey East regular season title with four games left in the season, winning their third Hockey East championship, and knocking off Minnesota, Michigan, and Lake Superior State (with Montgomery scoring a natural hat trick in the third period to erase a 4-2 deficit) to claim their first national championship, and college hockey's highest single-season win total ever at 42 (besting North Dakota's 40-win year in 1987).

There was something of a come-down at the beginning of the following season from the ultimate high ever recorded in NCAA history. That September, the school discovered that Ingraham had been incorrectly certified as eligible for the 1991-92 season. A month later, the team was forced to forfeit 14 wins from that year. That certainly left a scar on what had been an outstanding year that had been followed up by the ultimate glory, but it only scratched the surface on what was to come.

The 1994 Black Bears were ultimately decimated. Montgomery and Snow had graduated, while Kariya left early in the season to compete for the 1994 Canadian Olympic team, with the Ferraro brothers and Dunham departing to compete for Team USA. None of the four would ultimately ever return to Orono. Despite all this, the team started off with an 8-3-0 record. In December, however, it was found that Walsh had allowed a freshman defenseman, Jeff Tory, to appear in three games despite knowledge that he was ineligible. The team was immediately forced to forfeit those games and Walsh was suspended without pay for five games. With all the turmoil on and off the ice, the team struggled down the stretch and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years.

Led in part by Tory's return the next season, Maine rebounded to a 32-6-6 season and a second national championship appearance in three years in 1995, but the Black Bears fell to their Hockey East rivals BU, 6-2. But the off-ice scandals continued to grow at the same time. Word came out that Walsh had received extra income from boosters, and that boosters had provided illicit benefits to some players as well. After self-reporting 40 NCAA violations that had taken place within the program between the early 1980s through 1995 - with most taking place in the early 1990s - the school suspended Walsh for calendar year 1996.

The NCAA then unleashed its own punishments. When all was said and done, the program was barred from television and NCAA tournament participation in 1996 and 1997, a further 11 games from the 1993-94 season were forfeited, and scholarship reductions were put into place that kept Maine from offering the full contingent of 18 scholarships until the 1999-2000 season. While there was talk that Maine's 1993 championship was in jeopardy thanks to potential issues with eligibility for Ingraham and Dunham, their post-season glories from the early 1990s, including the national championship, were allowed to stand.

Missing Walsh for the end of the 1996 season and the beginning of the 1996-97 season, and hamstrung by sanctions for 1998, the Black Bears naturally struggled a bit. They continued to put up winning seasons, but they were a far cry from the monster they had been in the early 1990s. The 1999 team was markedly better, yet were flying under the radar after earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They had finished second in Hockey East to one of the best New Hampshire teams in their archrival's history, and had fallen to Boston College in the Hockey East semis. But two wins over Ohio State and Clarkson later, they were back in the Frozen Four. Still relatively unfancied with BC and UNH there as well, the Black Bears gained revenge on both of their league rivals, taking down the Eagles 2-1 in overtime before breaking the hearts of the Granite State in overtime, 3-2 on a goal by Marcus Gustafsson to secure the school's second national championship.

In some ways, the mojo was most certainly back. The title win set off a run of nine straight NCAA appearances. Walsh returned the team to the Frozen Four in 2000, but two months later, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Just over a year later, he succumbed to the illness at the age of 46.

Replacing Walsh behind the bench was former assistant Tim Whitehead, who had been the head coach at UMass-Lowell the previous five seasons before coming back to Orono as Walsh's top lieutenant - partially on the understanding that Walsh's time was limited. Early on under Whitehead, Maine continued to have success, inspirationally reaching the national championship game just seven months after Walsh's passing, but falling in overtime to Minnesota after coming less than a minute away from their third national championship.

Through 2007, Maine continued to reach the NCAA tournament and were still fairly regular Frozen Four participants. In 2004, the Black Bears won their fifth Hockey East title and reached the national championship game for the fifth time, but lost to Denver 1-0. Back to back Frozen Four appearances in 2006 and 2007 signaled the end of the nine-year NCAA stretch. These Maine teams had been decent, but were not near the powerful squads of the 1990s, and Maine boosters began calling for Whitehead's ouster even despite six straight 20-win seasons to start his tenure, in part because his placid demeanor differed greatly from that of Walsh, who displayed passion behind the bench. This was frequently interpreted by the fans as a cool, uncaring attitude.

Those calls became louder in subsequent years, starting in 2008 when the Black Bears failed to finish the season above .500 (on the ice, not counting the forfeits of 1994) for the first time since 1986. The Black Bears endured a very unusual stretch of four consecutive years between 2008 and 2011 where they failed to crack 20 wins, making the Class of 2011 on the third in school history to never achieve that mark. The team bounced back slightly in 2012 with a 23-win campaign and the team's first NCAA appearance since 2007, but that appearance ended swiftly with a 5-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth. Maine has not won any Hockey East honors since 2004.

Whitehead was dismissed in 2013 after a dismal 11-19-8 season that saw the team very nearly miss the Hockey East playoffs entirely. He was replaced by another former Shawn Walsh assistant - Red Gendron, who had coached with both Walsh and Whitehead on the 1991 Frozen Four team and had been present for the glorious 1993 campaign. In three seasons under Gendron, Maine has continued to struggle. While they eked out a winning record in 2014, the last two seasons have been especially difficult, culminating in a dismal 8-win year this past season, easily the worst in Orono since the team's first year of Division I play. Attendance at Alfond Arena has dipped below 4,000 per game for the first time.

The best analogy to use when describing Maine right now would probably be the RPI teams of the middle of last decade (and some would argue continues today) - the name is one that people who know college hockey should know and respect absolutely, but the on-ice results for a while are far from anything that would instill fear in opponents.

The Black Bears had one of the worst scoring margins in the country last season - 54th out of 60 - meaning they had a hard time both scoring goals and keeping the puck out of the net, as they averaged a 1.39 goal per game deficit last year and were in the bottom 10 in both offense and defense.

Byron returns as the team's leading scorer (8-16--24), but he and Brown (8-12--20) are the only two of the top five scorers who are back. Byron and Vesey (yes, that's Jimmy's younger brother) were the only two NHL draft picks on Maine's roster last year, but they will be joined this year by Holway, Pearson, and Shea - however, all five picks came in rounds five or later.

McGovern actually didn't get the lion's share of the time in net for Maine last season - that was senior-to-be Matt Morris - but he is supposed to be Gendron's goaltender of the future. With two games to the series and the fact that it's starting the season, we probably shouldn't be shocked to see both netminders play (as well as seeing both Cam Hackett and Chase Perry for RPI). But unless team defense in general improves markedly (and quickly) from last season, this should be a defense that a team that has struggled to score goals for as along as the Engineers have struggled will be happy to see in front of them.

All in all, Maine coming out of last season is reminiscent of RPI teams of the last few years, just without the defensive chops that have been anchoring the Engineers' hopes for a while. Both RPI and Maine have a lot of untapped potential offensively, the question for both sides heading into next year is going to be whether they can tap into it effectively. Perhaps give the Engineers a slight nod with two strong netminders coming in and a solid amount of a decent defense coming back as well, but that may well even up with the home ice advantage for the Black Bears.

On momentum alone, however, RPI last year was generally trending upwards, while Maine was a team trying to find the bottom. If they've found it, that's a good sign for their near-term and long-term future. If not, this could be a pretty good place for the Engineers to start turning some heads, especially if their younger offensive talent starts finding the back of the net right from the get-go.

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