ORONO, Maine — Leadership is a vital but sometimes underrated component on a successful team.
The University of Maine men’s hockey team has already won as many games as it did all of last year, and Maine first-year head coach Red Gendron feels he has been fortunate to have senior Brice O’Connor as his captain.
O’Connor and the Black Bears (11-7-2 overall, 5-2-1 in Hockey East), ranked 19th in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, face a stiff challenge this weekend when they visit 10th-ranked UMass Lowell (14-6-1, 4-3) at 7:15 p.m. Friday and No. 4 Boston College (14-4-3, 8-1-1) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“Brice has been amazing,” said Gendron. “He has led this team from day one. Even when I came up here to interview for the position, he stood out. He’s a very mature young man and because he is completely unselfish, he has the trust of all of the players on this team.”
Maine sports information director Laura Reed said after the firing of Tim Whitehead and before Gendron was hired, the players “needed someone to step up, and Brice definitely took over. He made the rest of the team feel comfortable. They look up to him. He’s a natural leader and a great captain.”
O’Connor said he is “thankful for the belief [Gendron] had in me. I wouldn’t be in this position without coach’s support and tutelage.”
He said he has observed other captains during his career and gauged what works and what the players respond to.
“The biggest thing is to do what is best for the team,” said O’Connor. “Sometimes that means being supportive of a teammate to get more out of him and, other times, it means getting in his grill to let him know we need more from him.”
“He is the best captain I have ever played for,” said junior center Stu Higgins. “We all respect him. He isn’t afraid to get in your face, but he’ll also be there to lend you a helping hand. He is even more demanding of himself.”
“It’s an honor to play on a team with him,” said sophomore center Devin Shore, an assistant captain and the team’s leading scorer (11 goals, 15 assists).
O’Connor also relishes his role as a shutdown defenseman on a tandem with high-scoring sophomore Ben Hutton, whose nine goals tie him for the national lead among blueliners.
Gendron said O’Connor is playing the best hockey of his career, and he and Hutton are often responsible for shutting down the opponents’ top line.
“I love it. That’s the thing I look forward to the most, ” said O’Connor, who has four assists and plays in all situations. “Playing with [Hutton] makes my job 10 times easier. He has a lot of skill and he has great vision. We have a pretty good chemistry.”
Maine is 0-6-1 on the road, but is 5-1-1 in its last seven games. UMass Lowell is 9-2-1 in its last 12 and Boston College is 6-0-1 in its last seven.
UMass Lowell is the nation’s second stingiest team (1.95 goals per game allowed) thanks to goalies Connor Hellebuyck (nation-leading .945 save percentage and second-best GAA of 1.75) and Doug Carr (1.88, 6th best, and .930). Center Joseph Pendenza (8 & 8) is UML’s top scorer.
Boston College leads the nation in scoring (4.38 gpg) behind linemates Johnny Gaudreau, who leads the country in goals (19), points (40) and points-per-game (1.90); Kevin Hayes who is third in points (35) and points-per-game (1.67) and Bill Arnold who is tied for eighth in points (29) and points per game (1.38).
Maine is the nation’s fourth-stingiest team (2.05 goals allowed). Goalie Martin Ouellette’s .935 save percentage is fifth-best in the country and his 1.94 GAA is eighth.
Freshman right wing Blaine Byron (6 & 6), who has missed the last three games with an undisclosed injury, could return to the lineup but top line right wing Steven Swavely (3 & 11) is doubtful.
Correction: This story has been updated to identify BC’s leading goal scorer as Johnny Gaudreau.