UMaine’s new hockey coach has players mindful of details with the home opener Saturday night.
ORONO — The frenzied rush of players and puck stopped quickly at a blast from Red Gendron’s whistle.
“Why,” asked the unblinking man with the ruddy face and the shock of thick white hair, “would you do that?”
Confrontational questioning, direct and immediate, repeatedly interrupted the otherwise energetic flow of the recent University of Maine men’s hockey practice. If there is one overarching theme to the coaching philosophy of Dennis “Red” Gendron, who took over the program in June after the university bought out the remaining year on Tim Whitehead’s contract, it is this:
Three different players, in three separate interviews, echo the word. A fourth player, senior forward Mark Anthoine of Lewiston, doesn’t mention the term but practically defines it in describing how Gendron operates.
“Instead of letting something pass by, he’ll stop practice for a second and he’ll say something about what we should be doing in that certain situation,” Anthoine said. “And hopefully, everyone’s tuned in, because it’s not good if it happens again.”
The Black Bears play a meaningful game at Alfond Arena with Gendron behind the bench for the first time Saturday night against Bentley, hoping for a better start than last season, when Maine fans waited until February before seeing a victory in Orono and attendance shrank to its lowest level since 1991-92.
“We don’t want to wait too long to get that first win in the Alfond,” said junior defenseman Jake Rutt of Scarborough. “I don’t think we will either. Saturday should be a fun game to watch.”
Maine opened the season with a pair of losses in upstate New York against St. Lawrence, 3-1 and 5-2. Hockey East action begins in November, when the Black Bears host Vermont, Boston University and Boston College and travel to UMass.
A year ago, Maine stumbled out of the gate, had difficulty scoring but eventually rallied to secure a spot in the Hockey East playoffs before losing to UMass-Lowell in the first round and finishing at 11-19-8. With six goals and 20 assists, Devin Shore, then a freshman, became the first rookie to lead Maine in scoring since Gustav Nyquist in 2008-09.
Now an assistant captain along with Anthoine, Shore is one of four current Black Bears who have been drafted by the National Hockey League. The others are senior goalie Martin Ouellette, sophomore defenseman Ben Hutton and freshman forward Blaine Byron.
By a team vote late last month, senior defenseman Brice O’Connor was chosen as team captain.
“It’s an honor to play for this program,” O’Connor said. “We want to give everything back to the fans that they give to us. They make it special to play here so we want to do good things for them.”
Gendron, a former assistant to Shawn Walsh, was around for the rise to national prominence of Maine hockey. Since leaving Orono two decades ago, he spent 11 years with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and was an assistant at UMass and, most recently, defending NCAA national champion Yale.
Assisting Gendron are Jay Leach, another Walsh protege with extensive NHL experience, and Ben Guite, a 2000 graduate of Maine who played on the â99 national championship team before embarking on a 13-year professional career.
Eight freshmen, all Whitehead recruits, joined the Black Bears, along with junior transfer Andrew Tegeler, a forward who played junior hockey last winter after playing briefly for UMass the previous season. Sophomore Matt Strickrott, who had an off-ice role that included video duties for last season’s club, joined the team as a third goalie when classmate Matt Morris became a medical redshirt because of a season-ending knee injury.
Senior Dan Sullivan, Maine’s starter two years ago, became Ouellette’s backup last winter.
The Black Bears aren’t spending much time reflecting on seasons past. Not with the intensity of their current practices. At the end of a recent session, half the team dropped to the ice for pushups as a penalty for losing a competitive 2-on-2 drill.
“We try and keep score in as many drills as possible,” O’Connor said, “so we keep the competition level high.”
The Black Bears may be 0-2, but they are looking forward to a fresh start, a new era at Alfond Arena with a coach who plans to return Maine to the national playoff picture.
“There are positives,” Gendron said. “We’re working hard. Attitude is great. That’s all wonderful, but we made mistakes (against St. Lawrence) that wound up in our net. We didn’t execute plays offensively that could have wound up in their net. We didn’t do enough of either of those things properly to win and so it’s not good enough.”
Another chance awaits this weekend, against a 1-2 Bentley squad coming off losses to Sacred Heart (3-1) and Nebraska-Omaha (4-2).
“We believe that we’re a much better team this year,” said sophomore forward Steven Swavely, “and we believe that we can really compete for a championship this year. That’s everybody’s mindset. No one’s thinking about how bad we were last year. We’re only thinking about how much we’ve improved this year.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or[email protected]Twitter: GlennJordanPPH