The mission has begun.
The University of Maine hockey team hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2007 after a stretch of nine straight appearances.
Maine, 19-17-3 last season, returns 11 of its top 12 scorers and its entire defense corps after reaching the Hockey East final where it lost to eventual NCAA champion Boston College 7-6 in overtime.
Dry land and on-ice training have begun leading to the first official practice on Oct. 2.
Maine coach Tim Whitehead, who is beginning his 10th season after signing a three-year contract extension, said the preseason is important for several reasons.
“The big thing is the preseason helps the guys pull together as a team,” he said. “We find out where they’re at with on- and off-ice testing; they work to improve any of their deficiencies in testing and, finally, we get the freshman acclimated to the team’s systems so they’ll be in position to help us right away.”
Whitehead said the coaches are allowed two hours of on-ice practice time with the entire team per week. That will start with the week of Sept. 13-19.
In addition, the coaches can work with groups of four and there will be plenty of captains’ practices, which do not involve the coaches.
The on-ice sessions are complemented by strength and conditioning sessions off the ice and the Black Bear Cup competition in which three nine-man teams compete against each other in sports like ultimate Frisbee, soccer, basketball, team handball, swimming and diving.
The team also will climb Mount Katahdin for the second straight year; have a meet-and-greet with Scouts at Eddington’s Camp Roosevelt that includes an overnight stay, and will meet fans at the fifth annual LobsterFest at the Union River Lobster Pot in Ellsworth at noon on Sunday, Sept. 26.
Whitehead has observed a more motivated team after last season’s heart-breaking loss to BC.
“The guys are very excited to get the season rolling. They can’t wait to drop the puck,” said Whitehead. “We finished strong last year but we have a lot of unfinished business.”
“We are more motivated,” said Maine junior left wing Brian Flynn. “It was a pretty bad feeling after losing that game to BC. That’s a feeling no one wants to experience again.”
Senior defenseman and assistant captain Jeff Dimmen added, “We were one shot away from making the NCAA Tournament. That was a tough way to go out. That’s all we’ve thought about. So we’re all a little more focused.”
Dimmen and Flynn said winning the Hockey East quarterfinal series against UMass Lowell, beating Boston University in the semifinals and erasing three two-goal deficits before losing to BC left them feeling they could play with anybody in the country.
Flynn and Dimmen said dry-land training is vital.
“We want to get off to a strong start. We didn’t get off to a good start last season and that probably cost us an NCAA Tournament berth,” said Flynn in referring to Maine’s 1-5 start.
The trek up Mount Katahdin, including the challenging Knife Edge, was an eye-opener for the Bears last season.
“I thought it was going to be more of a hike into the woods,” said Flynn, who is from Lynnfield, Mass. “It was a lot more difficult than I thought. I didn’t expect it to be a whole-day event.
“But when I finished it, there was definitely a feeling of accomplishment.”
“It was fun. It was another good team bonding experience,” said Dimmen, who is from Colorado Springs, Colo.
Flynn and Dimmen also said the Black Bear Cup is enjoyable.
“It’s a blast. If you get your name on the Cup, you’ve got bragging rights the whole year,” said Flynn. “The competition brings out the best in you.”
Whitehead, Flynn and Dimmen said the players have returned in excellent shape.
The major question mark this season will be in goal. Dave Wilson, whose playoff performance led Maine to the Hockey East final, has graduated and Scott Darling, who was suspended three times in two years, has left the program to begin his pro career.
That leaves junior Josh Seeley, sophomore Shawn Sirman (eight games last season) and freshmen Martin Ouellette and Dan Sullivan vying for the job.
“All four of them look great. We need to make sure we play very hard in front of them to give them an opportunity to succeed,” said Whitehead, who considers the job “wide open.”
Maine will open with a home exhibition game against Acadia University of Nova Scotia on Oct. 3 before hosting UMass Lowell and UConn on Oct. 8-9, respectively.