By Bobby Bertagna
Over the next few weeks, each of this year’s participants in the Friendship Four will be featured in a brief exposé, helping the fans learn about the history of the teams and what to expect in November. Up this week, the University of Maine Black Bears.
The University of Maine boasts the largest trophy cabinet of this year’s Friendship Four teams. With five Hockey East championships and two NCAA championships in their relatively short existence, they are one of the most successful programs in the country, even if they have been down on their luck in recent years.
Based out of Orono, Maine, the UMaine Black Bears men’s ice hockey program debuted in 1977 in the ECAC conference. They fared well for an upstart team, and soon left to be an inaugural member of Hockey East when they branched off from the ECAC in 1984. In that same season, a 29-year-old assistant coach from Michigan State was named head coach and turned the program into a national powerhouse. Shawn Walsh was one of the most gifted college hockey coaches of his time, and by the early ‘90’s, his Maine teams were vying for the national title year in year out. In 1993, led by future NHL star Paul Kariya, they won their first NCAA championship, and won another in 1999.
Walsh was an icon for Maine hockey and one of the most respected and successful coaches in college hockey history. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys in 2000 and died a year later in 2001. Walsh personally selected Tim Whitehead to take over as coach after his death, and Whitehead initially enjoyed success, bringing the team to the national championship game in 2002 and 2004, though the team lost both games.
In the last decade, the program has struggled to reach their former heights, failing to win the Hockey East tournament or qualify for the NCAA tournament since 2012. Current head coach Red Gendron is in the rebuilding process, with a young and dynamic squad looking to improve on their 11th place finish in Hockey East last season (which should hopefully be doable, as there are only eleven teams in the league). A big issue they will have to overcome is their horrific away record over the last two years; in the past two seasons, they have won only two away games, which both came in the same weekend against fellow bottom-dwellers Massachusetts. When asked about his thoughts on the tournament, coach Gendron said, “This will be a week that everyone associated with our team will remember our entire lives. We look forward to what we will learn about Belfast’s history and culture on a personal level, a way that is impossible to match even with the best of print or film”.
Players To Watch
Players to watch offensively include forwards Nolan Vesey and Chase Pearson. Pearson, a sophomore, is coming off an electric fourteen goal freshman season, and looks to improve on that tally to bring the Black Bears back to the top. Rob Michel leads the defense, and is expected to be an important two-way player. He shared his thoughts on the tournament and the chance to come over to Belfast to play hockey. “It was crazy when we heard we got the bid. I’m fired up for it. It’s going to be awesome. I actually have some family that lives over there so probably two-thirds of my family will be going over with me. It’s going to be an amazing trip and I’ve only heard good things about it.”
Team celebration after a goal against Miami (OH)
A big question mark for Maine is whether junior goaltender Rob McGovern can take the next step and become an elite player. In his past two seasons he has shown some incredible flashes of skill, but has yet to put it all together over the course of the year. As an undrafted player, he is grateful for his chance to play in a tournament like this. “A few years ago I never would’ve even dreamed of playing in Hockey East…and now going to Belfast this year, it’s just kind of crazy to even think that. It should be a great experience for everyone”, McGovern said.
Goaltender Rob McGovern makes a save against Minnesota Duluth
Maine is just one of four schools on display November 24th and 25th in the Northern Irish Connections Friendship Four at the SSE Arena. TODAY there is a flash sale for 24 hours where tickets are on sale for only £5! Tickets can be purchased at the arena or through ticketmaster via friendshipfour.com.