ORONO, Maine — When Dennis ‘Red’ Gendron stepped onto the Alfond Arena ice surface for his first game as an assistant coach at the University of Maine in 1990, he got caught up in the moment.
Between the large, energized crowd and the pep band playing the “Stein Song,” Gendron said, “it sent chills down my spine.”
Twenty-three years later, Gendron was able to relive that moment, this time as the head coach of the Black Bears for Sunday afternoon’s season-opening 5-1 exhibition win over Dalhousie University of Halifax, Nova Scotia, at Alfond Arena.
“The same thing happened to me Sunday afternoon,” said the 55-year-old Gendron referring to the chills down his spine.
A crowd of 4,058 showed up to welcome Gendron back and get a first glimpse of the Black Bears.
“It wasn’t full, but there was a great crowd. The student section was packed, and that’s what we see coming out of the tunnel,” said Gendron. “That was pretty special.”
The hockey coach had observed the long line of students waiting to go into the Alfond before the game and went outside to chat with some of them.
“I thanked them for coming,” said Gendron. “If all the seats aren’t sold for a game, we should let all the students in. The more the merrier. They were exuberant.”
He added, “I want to see this place full.”
Gendron said the fact that the New England Patriots were playing at 1 p.m. meant the fans “had to leave that game early to get there for the game … was fabulous.”
The Black Bears averaged 4,175 fans a year ago, which was the lowest since the 1991-92 season when they averaged 4,024. They have lost 1,700 season ticket holders over the last five seasons, falling from 3,600 to 1,900.
“People here love their hockey. The paying customers were into it, the students were into it. But the only way this place is going to be full again is if we win,” said Gendron.
Maine missed the NCAA Tournament five times over the past six seasons after a run of nine consecutive tourney berths. That ultimately cost 12-year coach Tim Whitehead his job with one year remaining on his contract. Maine was a dreadful 2-9-6 at Alfond last season.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. You have to have a winning program. It would be nice to say if the kids work hard and compete hard, that will be enough for the fans. For some fans, maybe it is,” Gendron said.
“But a lot of fans want to see a championship-caliber team, and they deserve it. I don’t blame them for not coming. Our job is to give them a reason to come. Our kids want to do that. They care about the fans,” he added.
Freshman center Cam Brown had been told about the crowd by his former coach, ex-Black Bear Timmy Lovell. And it lived up to his expectations.
“The crowd was amazing. My heart was racing,” said Brown who scored Maine’s fourth goal.
The Black Bears didn’t disappoint as five different players scored goals (Ryan Lomberg, Andrew Cerretani, Connor Leen, Brown and Steven Swavely); eight others picked up assists; and senior goalie Martin Ouellette had 17 saves, including 11 of the Grade-A (high-percentage) variety.
“At the end of the day, we wanted to establish that this is going to be a tough place for teams to come in and play, and we did that,” said Gendron. “They worked hard, competed for every puck and finished their checks.
“We made a ton of mistakes. We didn’t do a good job staying out of the penalty box. We have a long way to go if we’re going to become a good team,” he said.
Maine was whistled for 11 minor penalties compared to Dalhousie’s four, but the Black Bears killed all but one of the 11 Dalhousie power plays.
“The penalty-killers did a great job,” said Ouellette. “They blocked shots, forced turnovers and cleared pucks.”
Twelve of Dalhousie’s 18 shots on goal came on the power play. Dalhousie was without four of its top six scorers and was playing its third game in three days.
Gendron was impressed with the way his team played offensively, generating 47 Grade-A scoring attempts of which 23 went on net. Dalhousie had 22 and 12, respectively.
“What was neat about yesterday was when we had space and the opportunity to make plays, the kids did a pretty good job,” Gendron said. “But when they didn’t [have time and space], they threw grenades in front of the net to create a scrum.
“This program scored 77 goals [in 38 games] last year. For us to score more, we’ve got to score more dirty goals. They were hungry around the net, we had traffic in front of the goalie and the guys were willing to pay the price to make a play,” added Gendron.
Maine’s 2.03 goals per game average a year ago was 57th among 59 Division I teams.
One point of emphasis this week in practice will be passing, he said, as they prepare for their regular-season season-opener Friday and Saturday nights, at St. Lawrence University in New York.
“Too many times, our passes were too soft, and Dalhousie was able to defend it. We have to pass the puck harder,” he said.