ORONO, Maine — It was back to work for the University of Maine men’s hockey team on Monday as it began preparing for the 12th annual Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla., and a crucial stretch of 10 games in a span of 30 days.
Maine, 6-7-2, takes on 9-7-4 Clarkson University in the opening round of the tournament 4:05 p.m. Thursday. That will mark the first time Maine has played a team in the first round of the tournament it had already played earlier in the the season.
Maine beat Clarkson 4-3 in a thriller at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center on Nov. 26.
The other first-round matchup pits the University of Massachusetts’ 5-7-4 Minutemen against the only ranked team in the tourney, the No. 13 Big Red of Cornell University (7-3-1).
Maine and Cornell are the tournament’s co-hosts.
The Maine players said even though they haven’t played since a 5-1 loss to Boston University on Dec. 10, they maintained their physical conditioning during the 16-day layoff.
They were given an off-ice workout regimen by strength and conditioning coach Terry O’Neill and it was up to the players, individually, to find a local ice arena to work on their skating.
The Bears practiced twice at Alfond Arena on Monday and were scheduled to fly to Estero on Tuesday morning. They have Tuesday and Wednesday practices scheduled for Germain Arena in Estero.
“I skated a lot over the break, pretty much every day,” said senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill. “I feel that I’m in good shape. My hands are working. It’s just a matter of getting the rust off now.”
O’Neill said he worked on different aspects of his game while skating.
“With the time off, it gives us more time to focus on our bodies to keep it healthy, to stay flexible and get stronger,” said senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty. “I skated a couple times at the rink where I learned how to skate. It was fun to get back there. I skated with a good friend of mine, Justin Mansfield, who plays for Merrimack.”
Hegarty and Warriors freshman left winger Mansfield are both from Arlington, Mass.
He said if you “take care of business” in the off-season, there shouldn’t be any problem regaining your game shape.
“The first practice should do the trick to take the rust off and the second practice will be a good, hard team skate,” said Hegarty.
Senior center and co-captain Brian Flynn said it’s important to put in some productive skating sessions while you’re home “so you don’t lose your cardio (fitness).
“It’s not too hard to stay in shape. When we had our week of finals, guys were out there on the ice every day,” explained Flynn. “It was pretty easy for me to find ice at home. I just picked up what I had worked on over the summer.”
“It’s not that difficult to stay in shape,” said senior left wing Spencer Abbott. “You aren’t in real skating shape when you come back but that’s what these practices are for. After one or two times on the ice, you should be good.”
For the past few years, Maine coach Tim Whitehead has had his players return to Orono for a practice or two before leaving together for Florida.
He explained having them return on Christmas day for practice on the day after Christmas gives them some breathing room in case bad weather causes travel problems for the players.
The Black Bears have had situations in the past in which several players were supposed to meet up in Florida but got stranded, so they never had a good, full-squad practice before the tournament.
The players said facing a team they have already played has its advantages.
“They know us and we know them. I’d like to play somebody we hadn’t played but it’s also nice going into a game knowing what you’re going to get,” said Hegarty. “I’m sure they’ll change a couple of things up and they’ll come out of the gate real hard because we beat them. It’ll be a real good game.”
Abbott said since they’ve already beaten Clarkson, they know what they have to do to repeat their success.
“And we have to stick to the game plan,” said Abbott.
“It helps that we’re familiar with them,” said Whitehead. “We’re excited to play them. The last we met it was a great game. We’re very evenly matched.”
Hegarty said he enjoys the Florida College Classic.
“This is a great tournament,” said Hegarty. “I don’t understand why more teams don’t find a way to get down south [to play]. It’s a nice break from the cold and it’s great to be down here in a different venue.”