It’s a sports expression I hear all the time: “If you can’t support the team in bad times, then don’t support them in good times.”
Growing up in the 1990’s, fortunes weren’t so rosy for the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Bruins or Boston Celtics, with the Patriots’ appearance in Super Bowl XXXI the small exception.
The one constant to get us through harsh New England winters was the University of Maine hockey team, which the late Shawn Walsh, along with Grant Standbrook, built into a national power in the late 1980’s, culminating with arguably one of the greatest championship seasons in the history of college sports, a 42-1-2 run to the 1992-93 national championship. My first game at Alfond Arena just happened to be Senior Night of that season, and that was the team that got me interested in hockey.
The Black Bears then overcame NCAA sanctions in the mid-1990’s to capture a second national title in 1999, a team on which my wife was a statistician, and has a national championship pendant to prove it.
Then came the tragic death of Walsh to kidney cancer in September 2001, and while the Black Bears made it to four Frozen Fours and two national championship games under the watch of now-former coach Tim Whitehead, the Black Bears began to struggle in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century, with only one NCAA tourney appearance (2011-12) since Maine appeared in the 2007 Frozen Four.
That ultimately cost Whitehead his job in the spring of 2013, and he was ultimately replaced by former Walsh assistant Red Gendron, who has been working hard to rebuild the program back to its glory days.
It’s safe to say the script has been flipped from my childhood to adulthood, as the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics have won nine championships since the Pats’ triumph in Super Bowl XXXVI, while the Maine hockey program has struggled.
But one thing that has been constant during the struggles: The never-give-up attitude of the Alfond Arena faithful.
Change does not happen overnight in college sports, much less in this era of parity when schools from smaller conferences are having success. That can certainly be said in college hockey, as the last three national champions – Yale, Union College and Providence College – all won a national championship for the first time with their triumphs. But if there’s one thing Gendron wanted to re-establish when he arrived in Orono, it was to make Alfond Arena the feared home-ice advantage it once was. The Alfond is one of college hockey’s venerable, old-time barns, and when it’s rocking, you’ll leave with your ears ringing. Students still brave sub-zero temperatures for hours and hours for a coveted seat in Alfond’s famous balcony.
I can understand that some fans may be frustrated with the progress of the Black Bears. They were expected to struggle again this season after finishing 10th in Hockey East last winter, and being ousted in the first round of the league playoffs by Vermont. Fans want winners, and Gendron and his coaching staff know that. Heading into this weekend’s home series with ECAC foe Colgate, the Black Bears are 4-11-4, having lost three straight to rivals New Hampshire. But it’s in times like this where the Black Bears need their diehard fans the most.
Heading into the Colgate series, the Black Bears are averaging 4,183 fans per home game, which does not count a home exhibition against the University of New Brunswick and three games against the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Friday night’s game marks the first of six consecutive games at the Alfond for the Black Bears, and Maine still has home contests remaining against the reigning champions from Providence. Even though the team’s record is what it is, do yourself a favor and get to Alfond Arena to see a game or two. What this team lacks in scoring punch they make up for by working hard and grinding opponents into tough games, and guys like Will Merchant, Dan Renouf and Matt Morris have improved vastly this season. Cam Brown is as hard a worker as you’ll find. Freshman Rob McGovern has shown signs that he can be a No. 1 goaltender as he gains experience at the Division I level.
The second half of this season will undoubtedly be an interesting one for the Black Bears. Springing a surprising upset and perhaps stealing a first-round Hockey East playoff series should be the expectations that fans should have the second half of this season. Gendron’s next couple of recruiting classes look solid on paper, including three NHL draft picks in the Class of 2016. Maine’s schedule isn’t as arduous as it was during the first half of the year, and the Bears could easily move up a couple spots in the conference standings if they play well.
If there’s anything the late Walsh would want, it’s for Maine’s fans to continue to support the team, even when things aren’t going so well in the standings. Maine fans are some of the most passionate fans in all of college hockey, and even in tough times, they continue to show that passion, and that’s one sign that the program will keep improving under Gendron’s watch and return to hockey prominence.
Remember this: My grandfather waited 75 years to see the Red Sox win a World Series. If you can’t support your team when times aren’t good, they don’t deserve your support when they’re in championship contention.