On Jan. 4, 1986, the University of Maine men’s hockey team lost 16-2 to the University of Minnesota at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
It is the worst defeat in program history.
Just 14 months later, a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over UMass Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals at Boston Garden sewed up UMaine’s first NCAA Tournament berth and put the college hockey world on notice that there would be a new perennial national championship contender.
UMaine went on to earn NCAA Tournament berths in 16 of the next 20 seasons. Twice in that span, the Black Bears were banned from postseason play because of sanctions imposed on them for NCAA violations.
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The heyday of UMaine hockey included 11 trips to the Frozen Four and national championships in 1993 and 1999.
UMaine made its 18th and most recent NCAA appearance in 2012.
The 1986-1887 team was the third season under the direction of charismatic and innovative workaholic Shawn Walsh.
Playing an interlocking schedule against teams from the powerful Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the Hockey East Black Bears went 12-29-1 in Walsh’s first season and 11-28-1 the following winter.
It was an early-season sweep of nationally-ranked Boston University in Boston that gave the team a big confidence boost and set a tone for the rest of the ’86-87 season.
“After that, we knew we could beat good teams,” said defenseman Jack Capuano, who was a tri-captain as a sophomore.
“That was a real stepping stone for us,” agreed then freshman left winger Christian Lalonde. “BU had some great players like Clark Donatelli. We believed in ourselves after that.”
UMaine posted a 24-16-2 record, going 19-12-1 in league play, to snap a string of five consecutive losing seasons in which UMaine had a combined record of 50-122-2.
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It took Walsh and his primary recruiter, Jay Leach, a couple of years to bring in high-end talent and the players had to endure the growing pains of being a youthful team.
That squad featured three National Hockey League second-round draft picks in defenseman Eric Weinrich of Gardiner, University of New Hampshire transfer center Mike Golden and winger David Capuano, Jack’s younger brother. Winger Bob Corkum was a third-round selection, while Jack Capuano and center Bruce Major were fifth-round choices.
Eight players off that team still rank among the program’s top 37 career scorers and six earned All-American status during their careers. Eight went on to play in the NHL.
“[Walsh] could not have assembled a better group of guys. We had just as much fun off the ice as we had on the ice and we were a close-knit group,” Jack Capuano said. “We not only had a lot of good hockey players but, more importantly, we had high-character guys. We had a lot of leaders on that team. And we all had a team-first mentality. There were no egos. Nobody cared who scored the goals or had the most points. We just wanted to succeed as a team,”
Lalonde said another key was the Black Bears’ intense practices.
“We were so driven, and we had a very positive locker room,” Lalonde said.
“We knew if we played within the team concept and worked hard, we would get the results we wanted,” Capuano said. “We weren’t going to be denied.”
The ’86-87 team was a high-powered outfit that averaged 4.7 goals per game and scored at least five goals 23 times. Eight forwards scored at least 13 goals and six registered at least 16 tallies.
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Freshman David Capuano led in points with 59 (18 goals, 41 assists) and he was followed by McHugh (21-29-50), Golden (19-23-42), Guy Perron (13-22-35), Dave Wensley (16-17-33), Corkum (18-11-29), Jay Mazur (16-10-26) and Major (14-10-24). Lalonde and Todd Studnicka each scored nine goals and winger Todd Jenkins, maybe the fastest player to ever play at UMaine, was a fan favorite.
There also was tremendous production from the blue line corps, primarily from Jack Capuano (10-34-44) and Weinrich (12-32-44).
Sophomore Al Loring and future NHLer Scott King, a freshman, provided UMaine with a solid goaltending tandem.
Jack Capuano and Lalonde credited the late Shawn Walsh for not only building the foundation for a future perennial power but for his coaching genius.
“You want honesty and integrity from your coach. You want to hear the truth. The biggest thing for a coach is communicating with his players and letting them know where they stand,” Jack Capuano said. “He had a game plan. He had a blueprint [for becoming a national contender].”
Leach said they coaches told the players they had the opportunity to make their mark, turn the program around and make it a national power, especially with a grueling WCHA schedule.
That high level of competition would accelerate their learning curve and help prepare them for pro hockey.
“Those kids were talented. They had the stuff to do it. And they were competitive kids who were only going to get better,” Leach said.
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UMaine beat Providence 5-2 in the Hockey East quarterfinals and the third-seeded Black Bears erased a two-goal, third-period deficit to beat No. 2 UMass Lowell in the semis. Corkum’s controversial goal off his body tied it and McHugh scored the game-winner, while King made 28 saves.
“We never panicked,” Jack Capuano said.
UMaine lost to top seed Boston College 4-2 in the league championship game, and then lost a two-game, total-goals series at Michigan State by a combined score of 11-5. But the foundation for UMaine’s climb into the nation’s elite program had been established.
UMaine reached the Frozen Four for the first time the following year.
Lalonde said it was a tremendous honor to play on the 1986-1987 team as future Black Bear teams.
“Our fans were so appreciative. And they were so loud at our games. Sometimes, you couldn’t hear your teammate,” he said. “We had the perfect storm of the right players, the right coaches and the right fans.”