Even before winning national championships — even before making its first NCAA tournament — the University of Maine men’s ice hockey team has had something special. Since the inaugural season of the program in 1977, the Black Bears have been playing in front of the raucous, loyal fans at the one and only Alfond Arena.
The fans that pack the Alfond night in and night out have been known to be so loud and boisterous as to intimidate the opposing team. Defenseman Scott Smith, who played in 131 games for the Black Bears from 1982-86, loved playing in front of those hockey fanatics because of how loud it got and how close the fans were to the ice.
“The student section was basically so loud that players could not hear whistles, and the opposing goalies hated playing there,” Smith said.
From the get go, former Black Bear captain Bill Demianiuk said, the fans embraced the hockey team.
“The atmosphere was electric. The fans were enthusiastic, supportive and hungry for the game. The more they watched it, the more they wanted,” Demianiuk said. “There would be lines forming two hours prior to the games to get tickets for the games in all weather conditions.”
Demianiuk, who helped usher the program through its first four seasons, recalled times that the fire marshall had to lock the doors because the Alfond — which then had a seating of 4,000 — was at capacity.
“Fans would be sneaking in through the Zamboni doors when they opened to dump the snow out,” he said.
The fans at the Alfond can do more than just drown out whistles and intimidate opposing goalie and sneak through the Zamboni doors. At least once, they’ve swayed a future NHLer to pull on the blue-and-white sweater.
When Eric Weinrich traveled to Orono for his recruiting trip on Dec. 7, 1984, the Black Bears were battling the powerhouse Wisconsin Badgers. Even though Maine was overmatched that night, and ultimately fell 4-1, the energy and craziness of the crowd was not just something to behold for Weinrich, but also something that completely changed his mind.
The defenseman admits that entering the trip, he hadn’t really given UMaine a thought but that visit changed that.
“I can’t explain what the feeling was like, but I had butterflies during the game and after,” Weinrich said. “I told my parents on the way home that I had made my decision, and it was Maine.”
As Weinrich and the Black Bears’ program progressed over the next few seasons so, too, did the crowd.
“It became a place opponents feared and we fed off the crowd. I remember a few nights when it got so loud you couldn’t hear the person next to you,” Weinrich said.
“It was such a thrill to play there and I know from speaking to others who played against us that even the visiting teams got amped up to play there,” Michael Barkley said.
Barkley, who played in 122 games for Maine from 1988-92, has even brought his daughters to Orono to visit campus, meet head coach Red Gendron and — to no surprise — “feel the energy in the arena.”
Players gain a sense of pride, a sense of loyalty, in playing in front of the fans at the Alfond. Adam Shemansky skated in 132 games for the Black Bears from 2009-2013 and he considers himself lucky to have played in front of such a passionate fan base.
“The atmosphere at the Alfond was always electric,” Shemansky said. “It didn’t matter who our opponent was, the Alfond was always packed and the fans were a huge factor in our success on home ice.”
Weinrich shares that sentiment.
“We felt a huge sense of pride to perform well in front of the Alfond crowd for all those nights when they remained behind us when we were struggling to win games. We all loved the support and we felt as though many of the staunch Alfond faithful were family.”
When former Maine goaltender Garth Snow was back in Orono last fall for the 1993 national championship team’s induction into the University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame, he noted how great it was to be able to share that trophy with the Alfond faithful.
“For us to be able to win it and bring the whole state a national championship … is what made it so special.”
Maine played its first game at Alfond Arena on Nov. 18, 1977, against Acadia University.
Demianiuk was a freshman on that first Black Bear squad and counts that game against Acadia as one of his two favorite moments during his Maine career (the other being Senior Night against New Hampshire).
When the Black Bears played an exhibition contest on Oct. 1, 2017, it was against Acadia.
Forty years had gone by since the Black Bears and Axemen first battled at Alfond Arena. In all, 365 players had gone on to play in a game for the Black Bears since that first puck drop.
But as current Maine freshman Eduards Tralmaks found out in his first game as a Black Bear in that 3-1 exhibition win, at least one thing remained the same.
“The atmosphere was electric.”
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