ORONO, Maine — Exhibition games in the middle of a season can have benefits.
There will be three purposes that will be served when the University of Maine men’s hockey team hosts St. Francis Xavier of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, for an exhibition game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
It will be part of Hockey East’s Skating Strides initiative for breast cancer awareness and they will play on a pink ice sheet. It will give players who are on the bubble when it comes to cracking the lineup an opportunity to showcase themselves and it will also give the Alfond Arena faithful a chance to see the Black Bears for the first time since Dec. 14.
“We always love to play at home. It’s good to be back,” said sophomore left wing Will Merchant.
Without this game and the following Tuesday’s exhibition against the University of New Brunswick, Maine fans would have gone six weeks without seeing the Black Bears.
Originally, Maine was not scheduled to play at home until it hosts New Hampshire on Jan. 25.
Maine coach Red Gendron said the change in the league schedule left a huge gap in the schedule and prompted him to book the exhibitions.
With the inclusion of Notre Dame in the conference as the 11th team, the league schedule was reduced from 27 to 20 games. Each team plays each other twice instead of three times. Teams are allowed to play 34 overall games.
“We were thinking about the fans in doing that. We wanted them to have a chance to watch the team,” said Gendron, who was very impressed with the turnout of Maine fans at Saturday night’s Frozen Fenway game played in the rain.
“It was unbelievable how many fans and alumni showed up,” said Gendron. “We had a huge alumni function before the game in a room down the right-field line.”
Gendron is also pleased about the game being used to raise funds for cancer awareness.
“It’s a great cause. Every family has been impacted by cancer,” said Gendron.
Fans will be asked to make donations and they can buy a pink paper puck which will be sold by the members of the University of Maine women’s hockey team.
The women will host their own pink ice game at 2 p.m. Sunday against Providence College. They will wear pink jerseys and auction them off after the game.
The money raised will go to the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing in Lewiston.
“We just want to do everything we can to support the cause and, hopefully, the fans will come out to support it,” said senior goalie Dan Sullivan, who is likely to get the start Tuesday night. “Dealing with cancer is very, very tough. You’re dealing with life and death situations.”
Merchant noted that the team will be going from playing in the rain to playing on pink ice.
“It’s something new. It’ll be fun,” said Merchant.
Merchant is one of the players who will be looking to earn more playing time with a quality performance. He has appeared in 12 games and hasn’t notched a point yet. Sophomore defenseman Kyle Williams and sophomore winger-defenseman Billy Norman are others. Williams has played in two games without a point and Norman has a goal and three assists in 11 games.
Gendron indicated that everyone will play, although it is likely that his top players won’t get as much ice time as usual because of an important pair of Hockey East road games against No. 10 UMass Lowell on Friday night and No. 4 Boston College on Saturday night.
Maine, 11-7-2, has dented the United States College Hockey Online poll’s top 20 for the first time this season at No. 19.
“This is a big opportunity for us,” said Williams, who had a goal in 23 games last season. “I haven’t played in many games. Obviously, it’s a little frustrating. But I’ve got to keep working and Tuesday is another night to prove myself. I’ve got to keep it simple and be a little more aggressive and confrontational out there.”
Merchant feels he has to “be more physical and win more puck battles in the corner. I’ve got to be hungrier going to the net and use my speed to drive to the net hard.”
Norman said his focus will be on “working hard, making some plays and creating some offense.”
Sullivan said “every time we step on the ice, especially in front of our great fans, we want to give them our best performance. It’s really important for us to take pride in how we perform.”
The X-Men are 9-9 but have impressive wins over the Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s nationally ranked No. 3 and No. 4 teams in Acadia (Nova Scotia) and the University of New Brunswick.
They are coming off a 2-1 loss to Acadia on Saturday.
They are led by winger Jason Bast (5 goals, 14 assists), who scored 114 goals in five seasons in the Western Hockey League (Major Junior) and center Rob Slaney (9 & 8), who has played in 73 American Hockey League games and 114 ECHL contests. Centers Jarrad Struthers (10 & 4) and Michael Kirkpatrick (7 & 7) each have 14 points and had prolific Major Junior careers.
Former pro players are allowed to play for Canadian college teams, but cannot for U.S. college teams.