The Leach family has played a noteworthy role in the University of Maine hockey program’s 41-year existence.
Jon Leach played on the first four UMaine teams from the modern era, 1977-1978 through the 1980-1981 season.
He will return to Orono next weekend when the university celebrates 40 years of UMaine hockey during a two-game set with the University of New Hampshire.
Jon’s older brother, Jay, was one of the architects that elevated the struggling program into one of the nation’s elite during his four years as an assistant coach under the late Shawn Walsh in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Jay Leach was hired in 1984 and, in his third and fourth seasons, the Black Bears made their first NCAA tournament appearance (1987) and then their first Frozen Four showing (1988) in Lake Placid, New York.
Jay Leach joined first-year head coach Red Gendron’s five years ago and spent four seasons as an associate head coach before retiring after last season. He helped recruit many of the players who took a nine-game unbeaten streak (7-0-2) and a No. 20 national ranking into this weekend.
“When we first came up here, we were all in awe,” recalled Jon Leach, who now lives in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. “A lot of us came from Massachusetts and Canada and were used to being around rinks.
“But Alfond Arena was a phenomenal new arena and we felt like we were in another world. The fans showed up to fill the arena, even though we were in Division II the first two seasons. And it was a very passionate crowd,” he added. “The whole student body was very involved. Hockey was something new to the area and, in terms of a college perspective, this was another venue for them to get involved and we fed off that as a team.”
That first team (1977-1978) under head coach Jack Semler was made up of all freshmen, except for senior captain Dan Sweeney. The Black Bears went a surprising 15-12, 10-9 in ECAC Division II, and barely missed the playoffs.
That group of youthful overachievers were led by centers Gary Conn and Joe Crespi, who remain the program’s Nos. 3 and 10 career scorers. UMaine had goalies Jim Tortorella and Jeff Nord, future All-American defenseman Andre Aubut and fellow point-producing blue liner Dwight Montgomery and the next year added rock-solid defensive defenseman David Ellis and tenacious winger John Tortorella the following year.
The result was a 25-8-1 season, 17-5 in ECAC Division II, and the top seed for the playoffs.
Then came the jump to ECAC Division I and the script was very similar to the Division II script.
UMaine again opened some eyes across the college hockey world by going 15-16-1 the first season in Division I (10-11-1 in ECAC) and missed out on the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. The following year, the Black Bears went 23-11 ( 12-9 in the conference) and earned a postseason berth.
“There were people that didn’t think we could do what we did,” said Jon Leach. “It came down to our grit and ability to persevere. We had some skilled guys. (Aubut) could carry the puck and had phenomenal poise at the point. But we also had a number of (valuable) muckers.
“And we had plenty of characters on those teams,” chuckled Leach.
Leach said the biggest things he got out of his four years was “a lot of long-term memories and friendships that still exist to this day.”
After Jon Leach and that huge class graduated, the Black Bears suffered through three losing seasons, going 27-65 and failing to make the league playoffs.
Semler stepped down as UMaine was about to become a member of new league Hockey East for 1984-1985 and enter into an intriguing interlocking scheduling agreement with the well-established and prestigious Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The agreement lasted two seasons.
Charismatic Michigan State assistant Walsh took over as the head coach.
Even though they took their lumps the first two seasons (12-29-1, 11-28-1), the Black Bears changed the culture by bringing in top-end talent such as first-round draft pick Shawn Anderson, the Capuano brothers, Jack and David, Maine native Eric Weinrich and Massachusetts product Bob Corkum.
They also landed UNH transfer Mike Golden.
That paid off in years three (24-16-2) and four (34-8-2) and continued to do so long afterwards, culminating in a total of 11 Frozen Four appearances and NCAA championships in 1992-1993 and 1998-1999.
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