ORONO, Maine — When Mark Nemec first stepped on the University of Maine campus five years ago, he was considered a project by the coaching staff.
They liked his potential, but he was raw and his future was uncertain.
Through hard work, he improved steadily and he emerged as a shutdown defender a year ago. He was chosen a tri-captain for this season.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Nemec will be a key element on Friday night at 7 at the Ice Breaker Tournament in Kansas City because the Black Bears’ first-round opponent, the University of Notre Dame, has five forwards who stand at least 6 feet 2 inches tall. That includes 6-3, 220-pound Anders Lee, whose 17 goals led the Irish last year.
Lee was the second-leading point-producer with 34, and Lee and top scorer T.J. Tynan (13 goals, 28 assists) were preseason first team All-CCHA selections.
Army and Nebraska-Omaha will meet at 10 p.m. in the other Friday semifinal. Friday’s winners will meet for the championship at 7:30 p.m. Saturday following the 4:30 p.m. consolation game.
“When Mark came in, he was unheralded. His skating was a bit of an issue and for a guy as big as he was, he wasn’t using his size that effectively. So we decided to redshirt him,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
Nemec did practice with the team.
He had a goal and four assists in 28 games in 2009-2010, 2 and 1 in 31 games the following year and five assists while playing in all 40 games last season.
He was a plus-six a year ago. A player is awarded a plus-one if he’s on the ice when his team scores an even-strength or shorthanded goal and a minus-one if it allows one.
Nemec and defense partner Ryan Hegarty often played against the opposing team’s best line and they were the top penalty-killing tandem.
Hegarty has graduated.
“Mark has kept getting better,” said Whitehead. “He has become a strong skater and a very physical player. He’s a tremendous penalty-killer and he has developed his offensive game. He makes plays and gets wrist shots to the net.
“He has become a very steady two-way defenseman.”
Nemec took skating lessons from former NHL player Curtis Brackenbury in Milwaukee over the summer.
“We feel safe when he’s on the ice,” said senior center Kyle Beattie. “He has gotten so much better. The last two years, he has been a huge part of our team and it’s the same this year. He’s a real shutdown guy and an all-around leader on and off the ice.”
Nemec expects his role to be “similar to last year, but I want to expand it and continue to grow.”
“I’m not as gifted as other players offensively, but I’d to chip in more offensively,” he said. “I feel more confident out there. It comes with age. I’ve been working on things after practice like getting pucks to the net.”
Nemec knows the Bears will be challenged to score goals after losing four of their top five scorers.
He will pick his spots and join in the rush, and he said it will be up to all of them to “get pucks and bodies to the net.”
“We’ve got to do a better job fighting for rebounds,” said Nemec.
Nemec intends to become more physical and he unleashed three bone-rattling hits in the first period of Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Quinnipiac.
“I’d like to make my presence known out there,” said the native of Rouses Point, N.Y.
His ultimate goal for the season is to become “a well-rounded defenseman who can be relied upon in crucial situations. I want to help the team win as much as I can.”
Ice Breaker Tournament Semifinal
MAINE vs. NOTRE DAME
Time, site: 7 p.m. Friday, Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Records: Maine 0-1, Notre Dame 0-0
Series, last meeting: Notre Dame leads 3-1; ND 1-0 on Dec. 28, 2003
Key players (last year’s statistics): Maine — RW Joey Diamond (25 goals, 22 assists), C Kyle Beattie (6 & 21), LW Adam Shemansky (11 & 10), RW Mark Anthoine (12 & 7), D Nick Pryor (2 & 11), D Mark Nemec (0 & 5), G Dan Sullivan (22-11-3, 2.59 GAA, .909 save percentage); Notre Dame — C T.J. Tynan (13 & 28), C Anders Lee (17 & 17), RW Austin Wuthrich (7 & 10), D Sam Calabrese (3 & 13), D Robbie Russo (4 & 11), G Mike Johnson (9-10-3, 2.69, .883), G Steven Summerhays (10-8-0, 2.43, . 910)
Maine coach Tim Whitehead’s keys to the game: “One is to really fine-tune our systems and play as a team. Second, we need to simplify our offensive game. We were overpassing on two-on-ones and on the power play last weekend. We need to generate more scoring chances on rebounds. Third, we need to improve our special teams and our faceoffs and continue to maintain our discipline.”