The third Sunday in March feels like a perfect time to Remember the Maine.
You remember Maine. Proud university and mighty athletic program. So many years, the surefire cure for everything ailing us during this recreational and meteorological void in the calendar.
We spun the radio dial or tapped the television remote, and the Black Bears were reliable as the first taste of Dairy Queen and the initial glimpse of Daylight Saving Time.
Really, kids, this wasn’t that long ago. I’m old, but I’m not ancient.
The late Shawn Walsh led Maine to the mountaintop of Division I hockey, down into the valley of the shadow of the almost-death penalty and back to the summit again.
Every chapter of that mostly triumphant, sometimes tawdry page-turner was written during the Clinton administration. (Fitting, perhaps?) And when the Black Bears weren’t skating around with hardware in hand or skating around NCAA punishments, they were participating in Frozen Fours and Hockey East championship games, fore and aft.
It feels like only yesterday. It also feels like a hundred years have passed.
Now they’re getting swept from the conference quarterfinals by … Merrimack?
Walsh’s successor, Tim Whitehead, remains in the post he’s held for a decade. He has done a fair job replacing a legend in a Ray Perkins with the Crimson Tide sort of way, if not an Aaron Rodgers with the Packers way.
Whitehead continues to deliver individual talent. Gustav Nyquist is a Hobey Baker finalist. Though I’m averse to the recruiting of 14-year-old kids on moral and practical grounds, it’s a part of the game that’s here to stay, and the Black Bears’ boss has kept pace with it.
But the bottom line isn’t blue or red. It’s the three numbers connected by two hyphens that never lie, and Maine’s record in recent seasons tells a tale of mediocrity.
Maine is a mid-pack, second-10 program, no longer consistently in the conversation with Boston University and Boston College regionally and North Dakota nationally. Here in the state’s hockey hotbeds two and three hours to the south, Lewiston-Auburn and Greater Portland, it’s barely a speck on the sports radar screen.
I’ve been a Whitehead apologist since day one, but I’m running out of data to help him out.
Hockey isn’t alone in shrinking from above-the-fold headlines to six-point agate type.
Not many years ago, I was part of the press corps chasing the Maine women’s basketball team across the country as it tried to play giant-killer against Connecticut, LSU, North Carolina, N.C. State, Stanford and Old Dominion.
Cindy Blodgett, Amy Vachon and friends scared the daylights out of programs that had won or competed for national titles. Vachon’s 1999 squad finally tasted victory against Stanford, touching off a group holler in Norfolk, Va., that was heard all the way in Orono.
Former Brunswick High star Joanne Palombo McCallie soon took her growing family, vast recruiting skills, strong grasp of the game and boundless energy to Michigan State, then to Duke.
Three coaches later — including four seasons under Blodgett — and Maine is American East’s footstool. For a while, the Black Bears barely had enough full-scholarship players to stir up a starting five.
Maine’s best high school girls no longer consider the flagship university their first option, looking instead to conference rivals Vermont, BU and New Hampshire. And while the women’s tournament kicked off Saturday for a national TV audience, the Bears already have been in hibernation for two weeks.
The men, a multi-time runner-up for the America East title and automatic NCAA berth in the ’90s and the double-zero decade, hasn’t fared any better in the big picture.
Forecast to clear that longtime hurdle and find a home on a line of your office pool bracket this year, Maine instead lost eight of its last nine games and finished at .500.
There have been happy exceptions, most notably departing seniors Troy Barnies of Auburn and Sean McNally of Gardiner. But most of our best and brightest would rather get an education elsewhere and ride the bench for a national power than play for Maine.
That’s not merely a bad sign. It’s the symptom of a fatal flaw somewhere in the program, or in the university.
Dated, inconvenient trappings. The revolving door in the athletic director’s office. An unspoken painting of sports into a corner, instead of recognizing its value as an attraction and an identity.
Once upon a time, when all else failed, we had baseball to kick around.
While we tracked mud into our living rooms and awaited a Red Sox telecast that actually meant something, John Winkin was leading his troops south for ESPN-televised games against Miami and Florida State that Maine had more than a slap hitter’s chance of winning.
Now we click the link that tells us the tale of a loss to Rider or a split with Rollins. And we daydream of glories past, achieved by players who called Auburn, South Portland and Hampden home.
Keep dreaming. Keep watching those old films. Keep remembering when.
Because when it comes to the winter and spring sports that long provided such pride and joy, memories may be all we’ll ever get.
Copyright (c) 2011, Sun Journal, Lewiston, Maine
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.