In assessing Red Gendron’s first year as the University of Maine men’s hockey coach, players, alums and long-time season ticket holders said the school’s administration made the right decision in choosing him to replace the fired Tim Whitehead.
The Black Bears overachieved this season, entering the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to finish second after being picked eighth in the coaches’ preseason Hockey East poll.
But the team was swept at home by Providence, wound up sixth and, after beating Merrimack 2-0 in a first-round game, was dispatched in two games by Providence in the league quarterfinals.
Maine went 1-5-1 in the last seven games and finished with a 16-15-4 record.
Gendron embodied the passion, tireless work ethic and attention to detail that enabled his mentor, the late Shawn Walsh, to turn the program from a bottom-feeder into a two-time NCAA champion and perennial power.
An assistant coach at Maine from 1990-93, including the 1992-93 national championship year, Gendron established a blueprint to return the Black Bears to a position of prominence.
Whitehead left Gendron with some good young players, but Maine was also the third smallest team in Division I. And the players who were juniors and seniors this season had amassed just 104 points in 482 career games prior to this campaign.
Gendron never complained. He adopted the players and treated them as if he had recruited them. Gendron and assistants Jay Leach, Ben Guite and Ray Jean got the most out of the players.
The team played an attractive attacking-style of hockey.
Gendron stressed daily improvement and proper work habits. His intense, up-tempo practices featured regular competitions between the players, which made the practices enjoyable as well as demanding.
He wants his players to look forward to coming to the rink every day. That creates a much better environment for individual and team development. He also knows if players are enjoying their experience, they will be more inclined to stay rather than leave early.
Gendron is hard-nosed and fair, and he insisted on his players holding themselves accountable for their preparation and performance. He stresses passion and commitment.
Few escaped his wrath, but the players knew it was his way of helping them reach their potential while also preparing them to play at the next level.
After some sub-par performances, talented sophomore right wing Ryan Lomberg was relegated from the top line to the fourth line and was taken off the power play.
Lomberg got the message. He scored nine goals in his last 19 games after scoring two in his first 15.
“I love playing for him. He’s tough. Sometimes he’s not the nicest guy,” said a smiling Lomberg, who was eventually restored to the top line and the power play. “But he’s an amazing coach. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. I learned so much from him, and I look forward to learning more from him.”
Senior defenseman and captain Brice O’Connor said he was fortunate to have played for Gendron.
“He came in and installed new values and principles. He always sent us the right message, no matter the situation. And he got the most out us,” he said.
Sophomore center Devin Shore, next year’s captain, said he is “excited” about the future and continuing his learning curve under Gendron.
“He has been coaching for so long, and he has so much experience,” said Shore. “He cares a lot about Maine hockey, which is another thing that makes him such a good coach.”
Gendron was just as busy off the ice, sending regular emails to alums to keep them informed about the team’s progress. He also embraced the fans, chatting with them before games and thanking them for their support.
“I saw him at the Sportsman’s show [in the Maine fieldhouse] sitting at a table selling tickets,” said O’Connor. “He wanted to pack the building. He wanted to make it even more special for us to play at Alfond Arena.
“He is doing everything he can to put the program back on the map” added O’Connor.
“The people in the state care deeply about this hockey team. Some of them drive significant distances to come to our games,” explained Gendron. “Nobody travels like Maine fans. A third of the fans at Schneider Arena last Saturday night were Maine fans.”
He recalled a special feeling after the Senior Night game at Alfond.
“We had 1,000 fans stand here for an extra half-hour to 40 minutes listening to our seniors talk about their experiences. How cool is that! It’s a source of strength. It’s unique. It’s what makes us different. It helps us in recruiting and helps us in providing a [positive] experience for our student-athletes,” said Gendron. “I want people to love to come to this rink and have pride in this program.”
Messalonskee of Oakland hockey coach and former Black Bear Mike Latendresse said he knew the program was going to be in great shape after Gendron was named head coach.
“I love what he is all about. The team played very, very hard every night. I loved how he communicated with the alums. Maine will be back as one of the top programs in the country very, very soon,” said Latendresse, who played on the 1992-93 team.
“The buzz is back. It’s the same feeling you had when coach Walsh was there,” said former Maine defenseman Peter Metcalf. “They just didn’t have the horses this year. But he will recruit more talent, and they’ll be able to put games away.”
Longtime season ticket holders Doug and Cherie Damon and Murray and Lou Bain believe Gendron provided what the hockey program needed.
“It was fun to go back to the Alfond and cheer for that team again. Something had gone out of it the past few years,” said Lou Bain.
Cherie Damon is the president of the Friends of Maine Hockey boosters club and said Gendron did an “exceptional job.” She noted that he was “energetic and very supportive of what [the boosters] did.”
Gendron admired his team’s “character” and said its work ethic and compete level were second to none.
“We were able to establish the foundations necessary for any elite athletic program to be successful,” he said.
But he also said there are “no excuses” for not making the NCAA tournament and shoulders the blame.
“We didn’t win consistently enough. We have an awful lot of work in front of us to get where we’re championship-caliber,” said Gendron.
He thought his team “got better even if the results didn’t show it at the end.”
Gendron wasn’t perfect and wonders if he should have given goalie Dan Sullivan more playing time. Martin Ouellette’s superb play led Maine to the brink of the NCAA Tournament, but Ouellette wasn’t nearly as sharp over the final seven games with the exception of the Merrimack shutout.
The power play went 4-for-55 down the stretch. Gendron and his staff tried everything to jump-start it.
“That’s on me,” he said.
And Maine was one of only four teams among the 59 in Division I with just one road win (1-12-3).
The 56-year-old Gendron coveted this coaching job and is determined to return the program to prominence.
He knows one NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years isn’t acceptable.