ORONO, Maine — University of Maine sophomore left wing Connor Leen had a trying freshman season.
He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, just before dry land training in the fall. He eventually lost 20 pounds and it took him two months to regain his weight and strength.
He played in 22 games and had one goal, a game-winner in a 7-4 triumph over eventual national champion Boston College.
Leen is still dealing with the disease but he has a better understanding of it and how to control it.
He will enter Friday night’s Hockey East game against visiting UMass as the team’s leading goal scorer with three, and his five points tie him for the team lead with freshman center Devin Shore.
“I feel a lot better this year,” said Leen. “I came back a lot stronger and that has helped a lot. I’m at my normal weight [165 pounds].”
Leen had a minor flare-up with the disease over the summer but said, “I knew what it was right away and I called my doctor and got on some medication. I got it under control in about a month. I know my body now and that has made a big difference.”
“He has been playing real well,” said senior defenseman Nick Pryor. “It shows what a difference it makes now that he’s healthy. He was able to work out in the offseason and get into good shape and it definitely shows on the ice. He has been one of our best forwards. In some games, he’s been our best forward.”
Leen’s shorthanded goal Saturday night was critical as it pulled the fragile Black Bears into a 1-1 tie at UMass Lowell and they went on to win 4-3 to snap a seven-game losing skid.
“He has been great,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “It hasn’t just been his points. He plays very hard and wins loose pucks. He’s a tough kid who can stickhandle in a phone booth. And he’s exceptionally quick.”
Leen has seen power play and penalty killing duty in addition to playing his regular shift.
Senior center Kyle Beattie, who is Leen’s linemate, said Leen is “much faster and stronger” than he was a year ago thanks to his improved health.
“And he is more confident,” said Beattie. “He has scored some big goals for us. He has been great.”
“I feel way more comfortable on the ice,” said Leen. “I feel like I have more time than I did last year and that’s helped out a lot. I’m better positionally. I know how to play in the defensive zone a little better, too.”
He said getting more ice time has been beneficial.
“It keeps you more focused,” said Leen, a native of Chester, N.Y., who had 67 points (26 goals, 41 assists) in 43 games in his last year with the New Jersey Hitmen of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
Leen and the Black Bears will be looking to win their first home game of the season after five losses against a speedy, junior-laden UMass team under first-year coach John Micheletto. The Minutemen have returned 16 of their top 19 point-producers and goalie Kevin Boyle.
A loss would tie them with the 1982-83 team for the longest home ice losing streak to start a season in school history.
“That win over Lowell gave us a lot of confidence,” said Leen. “That should have a big impact on Friday’s game. We know we can win now. We know we can score goals.”
One of the problems for Maine at Alfond Arena is they have conceded the first goal in the past four games. They have only led for 18:19, and that occurred in the season-opening 2-1 loss to Quinnipiac. They have been outscored 20-4.
“We need to come out strong in the first period and get the crowd into it,” said Pryor.
“We need to be more consistent,” said junior goalie Martin Ouellette. “If we can come out and score a few goals early or get a few hits or big plays or make some saves, it will give us some good momentum.”