ORONO, Maine — Despite the University of Maine men’s hockey team’s 1-8 start, 12th-year head coach Tim Whitehead’s job is safe for the time being.
UMaine athletic director Steve Abbott said, “We are not on the verge of making any changes. We’re going to do what we can to get better and play more competitive hockey.”
The Black Bears’ first nine games include an 0-4 record in Hockey East, marking the program’s worst start in league play since the inception of Hockey East in 1984-85.
Whitehead has one year left on his contract after this season. He is the school’s highest-paid coach at $190,000 per season.
“Our focus right now is on supporting our coaches and players and trying to turn this season around. The season is still young,” said Abbott. “Everybody wants this team to get better. It’s a priority for all of us.”
Abbott refused to speculate on Whitehead’s future.
“We will evaluate the program at the end of the season just like we do with all of our programs,” said Abbott.
If Abbott decided not to bring Whitehead back for his final year, he would have to buy him out and that price tag would likely be his $190,000 salary.
Abbott has pulled the trigger in the past, terminating the contract of women’s basketball coach Cindy Blodgett with two years remaining after Blodgett went a program-worst 4-25 in the 2010-11 season to give her a four-year mark of 24-94.
Blodgett received a buyout of $109,772.
The hockey team is in the midst of a six-game losing streak and is 0-5 this season at Alfond Arena. Maine has been outscored 30-10 in its nine games.
The Black Bears are 34th or worse among 59 Division I teams in the four major categories: goals-per-game (1.11, 58th), power play (2.3 percent, 57th), goals allowed (3.33, 48th) and penalty killing (81.2 percent, 34th).
Maine, which has played only one game against a 2011-12 NCAA Tournament team (Boston College), has already been shut out four times and has scored one goal on two more occasions.
Despite the start, Maine has averaged 4,611 fans through its first five home games after averaging 4,454 through its first five last season.
The Black Bears lost players who produced 46.6 percent of their goals and 55 percent of their assists a year ago, and they have been hurt by injuries to returning forwards Kyle Beattie (concussion), Jon Swavely (torn quadriceps) and John Parker (broken foot).
Senior right wing and tri-captain Joey Diamond is the only player with more than 22 career goals and 47 points. He has 46 goals and 38 assists.
Maine had six freshmen and four sophomores in the lineup this past weekend in losses to Boston College (4-2) and New Hampshire (4-0).
The Black Bears are coming off a 23-14-5 season and an NCAA Tournament berth. Maine lost to Minnesota-Duluth 5-2 in the first round of the tourney.
Maine had missed the NCAA Tournament the previous four years after a string of nine consecutive NCAA berths.
Whitehead guided the fortunes of the Bears over the final six years of that nine-year stretch after taking over from Shawn Walsh, who died of complications from kidney cancer in September 2001.
During his first six seasons, Whitehead led the Black Bears to four Frozen Four appearances and a pair of NCAA championship game appearances.
Maine lost to Minnesota 4-3 in overtime in the 2001-02 title game in St. Paul, Minn., and to Denver 1-0 at the TD Garden in Boston in 2004.
Whitehead won the Spencer Penrose Trophy as the national coach of the year in Division I in 2002 and was a Penrose finalist in 2004. He has been a Penrose finalist six times in his 16 seasons as a head coach at UMass Lowell and Maine.
Maine reached the NCAA Tournament semifinals in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons before beginning its struggles with a 13-18-2 mark in 2007-08.
Whitehead piloted the Black Bears to an impressive 154-69-26 record in his first six years, but they are 86-91-20 since then.
Under Walsh, the Black Bears made 10 NCAA Tournament and seven Frozen Four appearances between 1987-2000. They won NCAA titles in 1993 and 1999.
“The hockey program is critically important to our university,” said Abbott. “It is a source of great pride to our students, alums and fans. It is a program known throughout the country.”
Maine will try to snap its losing streak with a pair of games at UMass Lowell this weekend.