Nate Leaman spent just one season as a volunteer graduate assistant hockey coach at the University of Maine.
But it was a special year.
It was 1998-99 and it was Maine’s second and last NCAA championship.
Leaman, who had spent the previous season assisting Gene Fadrigon at Old Town High School, will return to Orono as the head coach at Union College for a two-game set Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s special any time I can go back up to Maine. I’m sure I’ll get to see a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time. It will be really nice,” said Leaman.
He has fond memories of his two years in the Orono-Old Town area.
“I had a chance to work with Shawn [Walsh], Grant [Standbrook] and Gene [Reilly] and that was a very special staff. Equally important was we had a lot of good kids,” said Leaman. “Those kids still stay in touch. It was a special bunch and we had two very good captains [David Cullen and Steve Kariya].”
Current Maine assistant Dan Kerluke played on that team.
“Nate is a really great guy,” said Kerluke. “He knows the game very well. He’s intense and passionate. He’s a very smart man and he’s done a great job with that program. The reason they’ve been so successful is because of him, I would assume.”
Leaman said a healthy portion of his coaching philosophy was formed that year.
“Grant and Shawn had two of the best minds in the college game,” said Leaman who noted that they were detail-oriented and stressed player accountability.
“A lot of guys who were unheard of went up there and turned into real good college players,” added Leaman.
Leaman had received his coaching start at Old Town High and said that was “terrific.
“We had a good time that year. We had a lot of freshmen and sophomores on that team and our goal was to teach them how to compete. And I felt we did that,” said Leaman. “Gene is a terrific person. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Leaman spent four years as an assistant at Harvard and is now in his sixth at Union.
In addition, he will assist head coach Ron Rolston with the United States team that will be playing in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championships in Ottawa from Dec. 26-Jan. 5. The World Junior Championships are for the world’s best players under 20 years of age.
“That’s going to be a great experience,” said Leaman, who also assisted with the 2007 World Junior team.
Leaman added that he was “shocked” Black Bear freshman right winger and leading scorer Gustav Nyquist didn’t make the Swedish World Junior team.
“He was part of their training camp this summer when they flew over and played our top 40 players in Lake Placid. He was very good. He made a big impact. I’m not sure why he didn’t make the team,” said Leaman.
Teams from Sweden and Finland participated with the U.S. teams.
Leaman has compiled an 80-93-23 record and is the winningest Division I hockey coach in Union’s history dating back to 1991.
Leaman has been pleased with his team’s play this season but expects a stiff challenge against the Black Bears.
“The first thing is they have a goaltender [Scott Darling] with a .941 save percentage. That’s very, very impressive for a freshman. They don’t give up many goals, they’re one of the top [defensive] teams in the country so we’re going to have to make the most of our chances and also be great defensively,” said Leaman. “I anticipate that they will be tight games. It’ll be a good test for our team.”
The Black Bears also expect a tough test.
“They’ve been scoring a lot of goals so we’ve got to be on our toes, defensively, for sure,” said Maine senior center and co-captain Jeff Marshall. “We want to cap off the first half right and put on a good performance [for our fans[.”
“They move the puck well. They like to dump-and-chase and hit the [opposing] defensemen to force them to make mistakes,” said senior defenseman Matt Duffy. “We’ve got to make a good first outlet pass and move the puck as quickly as possible.”