There is always a buzz inside Alfond Arena in Orono, but on April 4, 1993, the mood was euphoric.
The rink was packed with 5,000 University of Maine hockey fans. They cheered wildly as captain Jim Montgomery, Hobey Baker Award winner Paul Kariya and their teammates hoisted the trophy from the school’s first NCAA national championship.
The celebration began at Bangor International Airport where the Black Bears boarded a bus to Orono.
“There were people everywhere. There were signs hanging off the overpass,” former Black Bear Mike Latendresse said. “And the rink was packed. That’s when I realized how impactful it was not only to us, but to the community and the state.”
The 42-1-2 Black Bears, led by fiery and charismatic head coach Shawn Walsh, had reached the pinnacle of college hockey.
UMaine, which made the first of 18 NCAA Tournament appearances in 1987, won another title in 1999.
But the glory days are long gone.
UMaine has enjoyed only six winning seasons since 2012, the last time it reached the Hockey East semifinals and the NCAAs.
The Black Bears, who have made 11 appearances in the national semifinals, the Frozen Four, have not been back there since 2007.
Walsh died of cancer in 2001, triggering the program’s gradual demise. The loss of renowned recruiting coordinator Grant Standbrook, coupled with an outdated facility, a lack of money for salaries and recruiting and increased competition from schools fully funding the sport, have contributed to UMaine’s state of mediocrity.
Under Walsh’s successor, Tim Whitehead, the Black Bears strung together six winning seasons and four Frozen Four appearances. But UMaine couldn’t sustain the success.
Whitehead was fired after the 2012-13 season and replaced by former UMaine assistant Red Gendron.
Hockey observers believe UMaine is capable of winning it all again. To do so, it must upgrade Alfond Arena, dedicate more money to the recruiting budget and coaching salaries, and bring in more top-tier players.
Joe Bertagna witnessed the Black Bears’ rise and fall during his 23 years as the Hockey East commissioner.
“They might not get back to the sustained dominance they had under Shawn. But there is too much history there to not find a way back,” he said of UMaine’s future prospects.
UMaine coaching pay lagging
UMaine athletics director Ken Ralph must decide whether eighth-year coach Gendron and his staff can lead the program back to national prominence. Gendron, the 2020 Hockey East Coach of the Year and finalist for national coach of the year, is in the last year of his contract.
Gendron’s inability to move the program beyond mediocrity has his detractors calling on Ralph to make a change and bring in a coach who can attract better players and return the program to the top.
However, UMaine has the smallest recruiting budget and lowest coaching salaries in Hockey East, according to a league source.
Gendron makes $213,282 per year. Boston College coach Jerry York earns $1.2 million and University of Massachusetts Lowell coach Norm Bazin rakes in $465,000 a year.
Even Mike Souza, in just his third season at New Hampshire, makes more than Gendron as he pulls in $240,000.
York and Bazin make more individually than the entire UMaine coaching staff as UMaine assistants Ben Guite and Alfie Michaud make a combined $160,906.
UMaine placed fourth in the league last season, its best finish since 2011-12, only to have the COVID-19 pandemic cancel the playoffs. Gendron, who has a 100-126-30 record at UMaine, believes his program is in a good place.
“We’ve worked hard to develop players so we can win games and championships,” Gendron said.
This year’s Black Bears include players from seven countries, nine Canadian provinces and nine states.
Providence College head coach Nate Leaman, a former UMaine assistant, led the Friars to their first NCAA title in 2015. He believes UMaine can return to the upper echelon.
“Alfond Arena is still the hardest rink to play in in our league. If you can win 80 percent of your home games and 50 percent of your road games, you’re going to be in the tournament,” he said.
UMaine bounced back last season with an 18-11-5 record behind the nation’s top goalie, junior All-American Jeremy Swayman. The Black Bears were ranked among the top 16 teams when the season ended and were legitimate NCAA contenders.
Mitch Fossier, who captained the squad, said a positive culture change last season will help pave the way for future success.
“We were really close and when we came to the rink, we expected to win. When you have high expectations, actions follow,” Fossier said.
Standbrook signed impact players such as Kariya, Montgomery, Mike Dunham and Garth Snow. He landed 35 future All-Americans, but stepped down in 2006 after working for Walsh and Whitehead.
“Hiring Grant was one of the best decisions the school has ever made,” said Jay Leach, the recruiting coordinator under Walsh who later spent four seasons in the same capacity under Gendron.
UMaine has produced only five All-Americans since 2008.
More college hockey players also are leaving school early to sign pro contracts after only one or two seasons, magnifying the need to bring in more good players.
Peter Metcalf, a former captain who played on the 1999 NCAA title team, said UMaine must be able to recruit more game-changers.
Leach said recruiting is more difficult because of NCAA rules and the pressure of having to decide on players at a younger age. That can lead to mistakes.
And UMaine’s remote location and rural environment puts the program at a recruiting disadvantage.
Less talent means fewer goals and UMaine’s 2.59 goals per game over the last eight seasons ranks 37th nationally among 60 teams. Of the teams that appeared in the last five NCAA championship games, 70 percent ranked in the top 10 in scoring.
Things haven’t been much better on the defensive side during those eight seasons as UMaine has allowed 2.78 goals per game (34th).
The best fans in college hockey
Fossier said UMaine’s best recruiting tool is showing off Alfond Arena on game night.
“When you bring a recruit to a sold-out Alfond Arena, they almost always commit [to UMaine],” he said.
Bertagna said the building, which UMaine has promoted as having “the best fans in college hockey,” needs an overhaul to help in the recruitment of top players
“Its amenities don’t compare with the other arenas,” Bertagna said.
The facility underwent a $4.85 million renovation in 2011 but things recruits would find attractive, such as the locker room and weight room, were not addressed.
“Our program still sells itself no matter how long it has been since we’ve been to the Frozen Four, but upgrading the locker room and weight room would be a huge help,” former UMaine left winger Nolan Vesey said.
Facility improvements are planned thanks to the Harold Alfond Foundation’s recent $90 million gift to UMaine athletics, but no details have been revealed.
“Our facilities aren’t awful but we don’t have the ‘wow’ factor,” Gendron said.
A $1 million donation by Tom and Sally Savage, alumni contributions and fundraising have enabled UMaine to purchase a video-editing system and a bioanalytic system that charts players’ progress.
Investing in the sport
The college hockey landscape has changed. More schools investing in their programs has led to greater competitive balance.
Penn State — and its $88 million Pegula Ice Arena — and Arizona State became Division I programs less than 10 years ago. Both have already earned NCAA Tournament berths.
In Hockey East, UMass Lowell and the University of Massachusetts have earned their programs’ first trips to the Frozen Four over the last seven seasons.
“The league has gotten deeper. There isn’t as big a gap between the top teams and bottom teams,” Bertagna said.
Gendron said the college game is more competitive now because of the amount of money spent on recruiting and facilities.
“In the ’90s, there might have been three or four good teams that might have been able to beat Maine but the rest had very little chance. Now anybody can beat anybody else,” he said.
UMaine needs improved facilities, more money and better players if it wants to get back to the top. Bertagna said it is important for Hockey East to have the program back in the national picture.
“Every league has a few teams it needs to be good. In Maine’s case, it’s because of the rink, the history; the fans travel well and their fans are colorful,” he said.