BREWER — The University of Maine men’s hockey team has been spending a lot of time in Brewer these days as the Black Bears prepare for a season-opening exhibition game against defending Canadian national champion New Brunswick on Oct. 2 at 4 p.m.
Due to the Alfond Arena renovations, the Black Bears have been doing their on-ice captain’s practice workouts at Penobscot Ice Arena.
Maine head coach Tim Whitehead said his team will return to the Alfond Arena ice surface Monday. Under NCAA rules limiting access, Whitehead and his staff cannot go on the ice with the players until Thursday. They will be allowed two hours of ice time with the players per week until the first official practice Oct. 1.
For the first time in his 11 seasons behind the bench at Maine, Whitehead brought his seven freshmen to the campus Aug. 1-19. They worked out with strength and conditioning coach Terry O’Neill, got acclimated to the school and took two courses apiece, which is required by NCAA regulations.
“I’ve wanted to do this for a while, but it has been a cost issue,” said Whitehead. “In the spring, I talked to (North Dakota coach) Dave Hakstol to get some feedback on it, and he confirmed my gut feeling that it would be worth the money.”
Whitehead wouldn’t disclose the amount of money it cost the program to bring the freshmen in and house and feed them.
But he said it will be worth the expense.
“This got them acclimated to college life and will be a big boost. It’ll help relieve a little stress and help them succeed on and off the ice,” said Whitehead. “They’re a lot more prepared than our previous freshman classes. I want to continue to do it every year if we can swing it financially.”
The veterans applauded the move.
“I definitely think it has been beneficial for these guys,” said junior defenseman Mark Nemec. “Just getting in here and working out with (O’Neill) and knowing what to expect when they get here on campus. For some of us, like for me, it was kind of a shock, not knowing what to expect. This has been a good transition for these guys.”
“That was a good idea. When I first came here, everything was new, the school and everything. Those guys were able to get their Maine (identification) Cards,” said junior center Klas Leidermark.
“It’s huge,” said junior defenseman and assistant captain Mike Cornell. “In hindsight, I wish our group did it. And I hope they do it in the future.”
“It eliminates that awkward period. They’ve already been able to build a bond with each other,” added Cornell.
It remains to be seen just how much of a boost it will give the freshmen, but Whitehead knows he needs to receive some production from the freshman class to complement the veterans if Maine is to end its streak of consecutive seasons without making the NCAA tournament at four.
Three of the top five scorers and five of the top 10 off last year’s team have left.
Last year’s freshman class finished with two goals and seven assists between them in 87 games and two of the three goalies who received significant minutes were also freshmen.
The 2009-2010 freshmen had 23 & 40 in 207 games, the 2008-09 freshman class produced 36 & 58 in 232 games, the 2007-08 group had 17 & 33 in 232 games and the freshman class of 2006-07 had 17 & 33 in 91 games with 16 & 27 belonging to Hockey East Rookie of the Year and current Tampa Bay Lightning winger Teddy Purcell.
The Maine players said their preseason is going well and the trips to Brewer three days a week aren’t a major issue.
“It’s nice. At least we have someplace to skate,” said Leidermark.
“It’s been good,” said Cornell. “Part of it is probably a good thing because it makes the team bond a little bit. We’ve been doing our own thing down here. We don’t have any guidance from the coaching staff or anything like that.”
“It has definitely taken a little toll on our cars and our gas mileage. But it’s a rink and we’re just happy to be skating,” added Cornell.
“It’s kind of an inconvenience, but we’re willing to do what we have to do to get ready for the season,” said Nemec. “It’ll be a nice welcome home next week when we skate at the Alfond Arena. There will be a little extra excitement.”
“We’re dealing with it,” said Shemansky.
Cornell said the $4.85 million renovation at Alfond Arena has stimulated their curiosity.
“I know the guys check in every day (to see the improvements). It’s kind of like Christmas morning in that we’re looking at the presents every night. It gets a little closer every day,” said Cornell.
“We’re definitely chomping at the bit to get back.”
Following the New Brunswick exhibition, Maine’s first two regular-season games will come against Merrimack on Oct. 7 (7 p.m.) and Northeastern Oct. 9 (1 p.m.) at Alfond Arena.