On Seniors Night at Alfond Arena, some Maine hockey fans were distributing a petition in an attempt to begin the process to get men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead fired.
They cited the program’s demise, particularly the second-half collapses in recent years.
It underscored the concern that the program is going to become another perennial non-contender like Bowling Green or Lake Superior State.
Bowling Green made six NCAA Tournament appearances between 1982-1990, including its 1984 NCAA championship, but hasn’t made an NCAA tourney appearance since 1990.
Lake Superior State made 10 NCAA appearances from 1985-1996 and won three NCAA titles. But the Lakers haven’t been to the NCAA tourney since 1996.
Barring a miracle, Maine will miss the NCAA tourney for a fourth consecutive year after a string of nine straight tourney appearances.
It is cause for concern but distributing petitions on Seniors Night wasn’t the time or place for that.
It was a night to celebrate the careers of seniors Jeff Dimmen, Tanner House, Mike Banwell, Josh Van Dyk and Robby Dee.
But it is imperative for Whitehead and his staff to make immediate recruiting inroads and improve the talent base. They have lost several verbally-committed players to Major Junior teams and several players early to the pros. But so have other programs.
They must persevere.
Maine has reached the Hockey East semifinals just once in the last five years after making 17 appearances between the 1986-87 and 2008-2009 seasons.
Whitehead defended himself from the criticism, saying, “Nobody cares about this program more than I do or my coaching staff does.”
I believe him.
But the results have to follow. It is a performance-based industry.
The road back to prominence will get more difficult because opposing recruiters will accentuate Maine’s recent demise.
Following a legend like Shawn Walsh was a monumental task after Walsh died of complications from kidney cancer in 2001.
For some, Whitehead has never been accepted even though he led Maine to four Frozen Four appearances in six years and came a whisker away from winning two NCAA titles.
His detractors say he isn’t fiery enough or charismatic enough to lure top-notch recruits to geographically-challenged Orono and to get the most out of his players.
He received a three-year contract extension from out-going athletic director Blake James last year after leading Maine to the Hockey East final where the Bears lost to eventual national champ Boston College.
That late-season run and the prospect for a 2010-2011 NCAA run probably earned him the extension from James. But a one or two-year extension would have made more sense because you want to see continuous progress or you’ve got to go in another direction.
It’s the flagship program for the school and the sport with the best chance of winning a national championship, which it has done twice (1993, 1999). There are only 58 Division I hockey programs.
As it turned out, this year’s team underachieved, going 17-12-7, finishing fifth in the league after being picked second in the preseason poll and getting inexplicably crushed 6-2 by Merrimack in a must-win HE playoff game after losing the opener 5-4.
The disappointment will cost the school some season ticket-holders unless junior right wing Gustav Nyquist waits to begin his pro career in the Detroit Red Wings organization and returns.
He’s a fan favorite and would give Maine’s NCAA Tournament chances a sizeable boost, especially if fellow juniors Brian Flynn, Spencer Abbott and Will O’Neill also return.
Whitehead has a chance to silence his critics and he must capitalize.