ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine men’s hockey team spends a lot of time busing to games.
The Black Bears’ closest opponent is the University of New Hampshire in Durham, 198.6 miles from Orono.
On Wednesday, UMaine (18-14-4) made the 298.7-mile trip to Providence, Rhode Island for Friday’s 7 p.m. opener of their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series against Providence College (20-10-4).
Many of the players watch movies on the bus to kill time. Not Rob Michel.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior defenseman is usually studying. He is an electrical engineering major and his course load is daunting.
“It’s pretty tough (tuning out movies on the bus). But I purchased some pretty good headphones that cancel noise,” said Michel. “Road trips are a valuable time to get homework done, especially when I’m missing class.”
Michel is also an alternate captain, which is another aspect of his busy life as a student-athlete.
“He juggles all those balls and he does it well,” said UMaine head coach Red Gendron.
“I’m good with time management,” said Michel. “I definitely have to buckle down, especially on weekends. I can’t enjoy myself too much. I’ve got to stay on top of my homework. I have to get stuff done early.”
Michel has a 3.00 grade point average and has no regrets about choosing electrical engineering as his major.
“I took a couple of engineering classes in high school and that pushed me to pursue that. And my dad is an electrical engineer,” he said.
It is one of the major reasons he landed at UMaine.
“I was up front with every school I talked to that I wanted to major in electrical engineering. A few of them were against that idea,” said Michel. “I know it’s not a very popular major among hockey players. I don’t think the department here has ever had a hockey player come through it.”
UMaine, he said, instead was open to the idea and offered to help him make it happen.
“When I stepped on campus, it felt like the right fit for me. I have the best of both worlds.”
He said the department is top notch.
“It’s a great staff. They know what they’re doing and they really help you,” said Michel, a native of Camillus, New York.
He said he has been fortunate in that his professors and coaches have been willing to help him balance academics and athletics.
“I’ve only had to miss one or two practices,” said Michel, who oftens takes meals to class and to the rink.
Michel is having an exceptional season. He has five goals and 12 assists in 31 games and his four power-play goals lead the team. He missed five games early this season with a knee injury.
“He’s a smart kid and it shows in the way he plays,” said sophomore left wing Mitch Fossier.
“We have a lot of young defensemen and they have learned from him … his work ethic,” said sophomore center and co-captain Chase Pearson. “He stays and works out after (practice) in the gym. He does all the right things and that translates onto the ice.”
In addition to his regular shift, Michel quarterbacks a power play and is a valuable penalty-killer.
“He is a good player and he logs a lot of ice time for them,” said Providence coach Nate Leaman. “ Their defense gets involved in the offense and he’s the leader.”
Michel registered three assists in UMaine’s 3-2 win over New Hampshire last Saturday night.
He is an exceptional skater who can pull away from forecheckers. He also has some nifty moves and has a blistering shot.
Gendron called him a gritty defender. Michael had nine goals, which tied for fifth among Division I defensemen, and 10 assists last season.
Michel, who had eight assists in 34 games as a freshman, feels he has improved every year.
“I’m progressing well. I think a lot of it has to do with my teammates,” said Michel. “They’ve given me good opportunities and the puck had found a way to go in.”
He has really focused on the defensive aspect of his game.
“He has improved steadily,” said Gendron, who praised Michel’s leadership skills.
“He has one of the most challenging schedules of any of the players in our program but he still finds time to be a terrific leader and teammate,” said Gendron.
“We wouldn’t be here without him,” said senior center and alternate captain Cedric Lacroix.”He has always been able to produce offensively and, defensively, he’s tough to play against.”
Michel is looking forward to the Providence series even though he and his teammates have never beaten the Friars. They lost 3-2 in overtime on Feb. 9 in their last meeting and that extended PC’s unbeaten streak against UMaine to 16 games (15-0-1).
“We don’t look at our past. This is a brand-new team,” said Michel. “In the game down at their place, we gave them all they could handle but the puck didn’t bounce our way. That game could have gone either way.”
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