It’s easy for fans of a sports team to be blindsided by its win-loss record, in particular when things aren’t going so smoothly in that department.
Occasionally, some fans that fail to see the big picture, particularly in college sports.
A tough season for the University of Maine men’s hockey team came to a crashing halt Saturday night in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, the Black Bears being swept by a Northeastern club which has only lost one game since mid-December. It certainly was a heartbreaking sweep for Maine, as the Black Bears lost both games in overtime.
The Black Bears struggled to an 8-24-6 record during the 2015-16 campaign, losing in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs for the second consecutive year.
While the combination of those results may give Black Bear Nation a bleak outlook on the future, Maine fans need to look at the big picture.
As I’ve noted time and time again in this space, the Black Bears are in the midst of a rebuild. This proud program was in a dark spot when former head coach Tim Whitehead was fired in the spring of 2013. University officials subsequently brought in Gendron, a former assistant to the late, great Shawn Walsh, to restore the program to its glory days.
Anybody who follows college sports knows that unlike in the professional ranks, rebuilds don’t happen overnight. You can’t just call up another athletic director and trade players.
All big-name college sports programs go through the motions that Maine is currently going through. I’ve been a huge Notre Dame football fan my whole life, and even though the Fighting Irish have the big-time resources to always field contending teams in college football, it took head coach Brian Kelly a few years to clean up the mess his predecessor, former New England Patriots assistant coach Charlie Weis, had dumped on the South Bend gridiron. Even though Kelly has not led Notre Dame to a national championship, a stuffing of Oklahoma in Norman just before Halloween in 2012 signified the return of the Irish’s return to national relevance. They just ran into an Alabama juggernaut in the national title game that winter.
I know it seems odd to compare University of Maine hockey to Notre Dame football, but they have one thing in common: They are collegiate sports teams with rabid fan bases and impeccable tradition.
UMaine certainly has great trust in Gendron, evidenced by the two-year extension he signed last month, which will keep him in Orono through the spring of 2019. And next season will arguably be an important step in the Black Bears’ rebuild.
A talented recruiting class headlined by three NHL draft picks (Chase Pearson and Patrick Holway, Detroit and Pat Shea, Florida) will be arriving in Orono in September. Another incoming recruit, Jake Pappalardo, could see himself taken in this June’s NHL draft. Oddly enough, Shea played for Whitehead at New England prep school power Kimball Union Acacdemy in New Hampshire. His brother, Neil, is verbally committed to come to Maine, but not for another few years. Maine fans should be excited about the 2016 recruiting class, as it should be a solid one to build around. Frankly, I’m excited to see what the likes of Pearson and Pappalardo can do. Holway should be a nice addition to the defensive corps as well. If Maine’s history of Detroit draft picks is any indication (Gus Nyquist, Jimmy Howard), Pearson and Holway will do just fine.
Even though their record may not indicate it, there were lot of positives for Maine this season. Hosting the IceBreaker tournament in Portland was a big one, and that may be a springboard in getting an NCAA regional into the Pine Tree State in 2017-18. In that same tournament, the Black Bears stood national power North Dakota, this writer’s early national championship pick, down and beat them in a shootout. It was also cool to see Tyler Walsh, son of the late coach, skate up to the Cross Arena blue line for Michigan State a couple times at the IceBreaker. Freshman goaltender Rob McGovern showed signs that he could be a real solid goaltender in Orono. Classmate Brendan Robbins got better as the season went along. Defenseman Dan Renouf is a solid quarterback for Maine’s power play. And any team would love to have 50 guys like Cam Brown on their squad. He’s a guy whose work ethic young players should model theirs after. Frankly, he is Julian Edelman on skates.
If there’s one thing Maine fans can be proud of, it’s this team’s resiliency. In the second game against Northeastern, Maine fell behind 3-0. A lot of fans were quick to throw in the towel. The players could’ve easily given up, but rallied for three unanswered goals before the Huskies moved on in overtime. If you’re going to go down, you go down with your boots on, and although it hurts to have your season end in overtime for the second straight year, the Black Bears showed a lot of pride and admiration. There’s a lot of pride with putting the Maine sweater on, and that’s something the team can take heading into next fall.
I can only hope the Black Bear faithful continue to stick with Gendron and Co. Here in Maine, hockey always gets us through the grind of the brutal winter months. I have a feeling my son will grow up watching some winning, exciting Black Bear hockey teams, much like I did in the early 90’s and all the way up to my own days in college, which included bus trips to NCAA tournaments and Frozen Fours. And Gendron, Ben Guite and company are the right guys to lead us back to those destinations. Like every rebuild, it’s certainly a bumpy ride, but if it ends with a national championship a few years down the road, the heartbreak and frustration of early playoff exits will certainly be worth it.
Remember, there was once a time where the NFL’s reigning dynasty was closer to the first pick in the draft than bringing Lombardi Trophies back to New England. Gendron, Guite and company are doing a fantastic job, both have national championship rings as Black Bears, and at some point in my son’s early years, I have a hunch they’ll bring another one back to Orono.
Maine may not make it back to the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17, but so long as they keep improving night in and night out, the future will remain bright in Orono. It may seem light years away, but so long as the Black Bear faithful are there, it’s closer than you think.