PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Red Gendron didn’t promise miracles for this season. The loyal fans of the University of Maine hockey team didn’t get one.
This time they’re not complaining.
The season is over. Maine stumbled again, losing its fourth and fifth straight games at the worst time. Providence won the first two games of the best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinals this weekend, sweeping Maine out of the tournament and out of the NCAA playoffs.
The stumbles, or failure to meet expectations, cost Tim Whitehead his coaching job last spring. The stumbles were the reason Gendron was brought back to Orono. The former assistant coach under Shawn Walsh was charged with restoring a program that won national titles in 1993 and 1999.
Gendron was told to make Maine hockey the state’s most popular team again. Bring back the wins, bring back some victory hardware, bring back the pride and the fans.
And while you’re at it, solve the crisis in Ukraine and find that missing Malaysian airliner.
Saturday night, Maine fans inside Schneider Arena didn’t care what was happening outside. Except, of course, to watch the afternoon’s quarterfinal game between Boston College and Notre Dame, won by BC 4-2 to even that series at 1-1.
Maine blue-and-white sweaters, T-shirts and caps seemed to be everywhere. When Ben Hutton scored the game’s first goal on a power play, it sounded like we were all back on Maine’s campus and Alfond Arena.
Maine hockey traveled well through the 1990s. Maybe because good hockey was expected. Or maybe after this particularly rough winter, Maine cabin fever was especially contagious.
Where did this Maine crowd come from?
They like what they see, I was told when I wandered the concession area before the game. They like the attitude, they like the effort. Most of all they like Red.
Funny, but I only occasionally heard the name Gendron. He’s Red, easily identified by his thick mop of white hair. Better, he’s easily approachable.
Red listens. Red answers. Sure, the conversation is typically about all things hockey. Sometimes they’re not. Bob Shank, the publisher of “The Eastern Gazette” weekly shopper in the struggling central Maine towns of Dexter and Dover-Foxcroft, heard Red say he’s got a family member in newspapers.
Shank has been a Maine hockey fan for decades. Now he’s a season ticket-holder. This winter he discovered that he and the hockey coach at Maine have a small patch of common ground.
That may not sell in Massachusetts or New York or Michigan. In Maine, the big state of small towns, that sells.
Gendron’s predecessor understood hockey and understood people but didn’t sell himself or his program. The disconnect between coach and fans grew.
After Friday night’s loss, Gendron talked about opponents finding the sleepers on his team and taking advantage. The context was those Maine players not at game speed for every minute. If it wasn’t for the seriousness of the game, the whole sleeper bit would have been funny.
Instead it was Red talking like Red and connecting with anyone listening. Red’s audience understands.
Which is why they traveled for hours for this weekend series. No, they don’t like the record. They didn’t like the weekend losses and those that seemed to come more frequently in February.
They like Red and they like his players, although everyone qualified the last part. These aren’t Red’s players, I was told again and again. He didn’t recruit them although they have played hard and, at times, well for him.
He praised them after the 4-2 season-ending loss. They played much better Saturday night and that’s what a coach wants. Red was honest. “You don’t get beat four times (Providence beat Maine twice during the season) by the same team and say you’re the better team,” he said. “It is a bitter pill.”
Maine hockey fans haven’t lived in a fantasy world for a long time. Red didn’t come back to Maine with a pointy wizard’s hat or long staff.
He had little magic in his bag and certainly no miracles. Maine hockey will have to earn those.
The fans will wait.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: