The players on the University of Maine men’s hockey team are fully aware of the program’s storied tradition: 2 NCAA championships, 11 Frozen Fours and 18 NCAA tournament appearances.

They also know several former players will on hand to celebrate the 40-plus years of the program this weekend when the Black Bears entertain archrival New Hampshire on Friday and Saturday nights.

The list of returnees will include players from the 1977-1978 team who started the program in the modern era.

The UMaine-UNH series is one of college hockey’s best rivalries and the Black Bears said there will be extra motivation this weekend with the former players on hand.

“Any time you have alumni in the building, you want to make them proud,” said UMaine senior center and alternate captain Cedric Lacroix. “They set the foundation for a great program. They obviously paved the way. The program wouldn’t have the history it has without them.

“And some of them have donated to the organization, too,” noted Lacroix.

“It’s awesome. When you walk into the locker room, you see the pictures of all the old teams and you really want to put on a good show for them,” said senior left wing Nolan Vesey. “They set the tone for us.”

It also will be the last time UNH coach Dick Umile will coach a regular-season game at Alfond Arena. He is retiring after 28 seasons and will be replaced by associate head coach Mike Souza.

“It’s going to be bittersweet,” said the 69-year-old Umile. “ Alfond Arena is one of the great rinks in college hockey. There’s a lot of respect between the programs, we’ve had some great games. The rivalry is second to none. And having some of their alumni back will be cool.”

But the celebration won’t overshadow the fact there are four valuable Hockey East points on the line.

The Wildcats (9-11-2, 4-7-1 HE) are winless in their last seven games while UMaine (12-9-2, 6-6-1 HE) snapped a three-game winless skein with a 3-1 win over Massachusetts on Tuesday.

Lacroix said UNH’s recent skid doesn’t matter.

“We know we’re going to get their best effort,” said Lacroix. “We can’t rely on goaltending as much as we did on Tuesday. We have to have a better defensive effort. We have to have all six defensemen, 12 forwards and three goalies ready to go.

“We didn’t play one of our better games on Tuesday but we found a way to win,” said Vesey. “In other years, we would have lost that game. So it was good to get a win.”

UNH is coming off Sunday’s 5-2 loss at Boston College.

Vesey said the rivalry with UNH is special and he knew that even before he stepped foot on the Orono campus.

“I used to watch their games on NESN (New England Sports Network). You could tell the games were pretty intense,” he said.

UNH has won the last six meetings between the two.

“They’ve had their way with us since we swept them my freshman season,” said Vesey. “We’ve got a little revenge on our minds. We want to keep the ball rolling.”

Follow BDN Maine Sports on Facebook for the latest in Maine high school and college sports.