Three hockey rinks are abuzz with hundreds of teenage dreamers on a Sunday morning in May.

They have descended on the Foxboro Sports Center in Massachusetts to compete in a three-day hockey tournament called the Pro-Am Pre-Draft Showcase. The potential prize is much more than just another trophy to carry home.

There are dozens of scouts among the parents in the bleachers, hoping to find the next star player for their team. Among them is University of Maine assistant coach Ben Guite, in his second year of scouring North America on behalf of his alma mater.

This is the competition Black Bear fans don’t see, the year-round quest for young athletes who can help fill arenas in Orono and Bangor – a challenging task given UMaine’s remote location.

For the coaches, the recruiting process is a high-stakes, labor-intensive grind with the ultimate goal of winning more games. And winning games means job security.

The most gifted athletes are on the radar by their freshman year of high school. By their junior year, they will get letters, emails, phone calls and text messages from college coaches, the most ardent of whom will schedule home visits and eventually invite the athlete on an expense-paid trip to campus.

The courting of these athletes is so vital that UMaine spent nearly $300,000 on recruiting last year, 1.6 percent of the athletic department’s $18.9 million budget.

“At the end of the day, it’s whoever gets the best players that wins,” said Guite, a star forward on the Black Bears’ 1999 national championship team. “You do need the horses.”

Recruiting has always been a necessity in college sports, but the process used to play out away from the public eye. Coaches are prohibited from talking about players until they sign National Letters of Intent as high school seniors.

But the rise of social media has made it easy for the athletes themselves to get the word out – about which schools have offered scholarships, about which schools they’ll be officially visiting, and ultimately about where they intend to spend the next four years of their lives.

Dozens of websites are devoted to recruiting, tracking each scholarship offer an athlete gets. Fans immediately turn to YouTube to dissect video highlights of each potential player.

“The whole world has changed,” said Jack Renkens, a former college athlete and coach who has written 15 books about recruiting. “It’s just unbelievable that everyone wants to play Division I. Everybody’s got that dream. For coaches, you can’t just recruit in your backyard. You’ve got to recruit the world.”

And that’s what UMaine, the state’s only NCAA Division I school, has been doing. The university spent $298,534 in 2014 trying to land top student-athletes. That represents an 18 percent increase from the $252,828 allotted for recruiting in 2004. The increase comes at a time when the university system is running budget deficits, tapping into $7 million of emergency reserves after eliminating 206 positions for its latest $518 million budget.

Men’s hockey, the school’s most high-profile sport thanks to two national championships and routine head-to-head competition with the likes of Boston College and Notre Dame, spent the most on recruiting – $83,243. That figure is slightly higher than its public school peers in the Hockey East conference, which saw Vermont spend $72,000 and Massachusetts $79,000.

Still, it pales in comparison to what major college programs spend. Tennessee shelled out a nation-high $1.3 million on football recruiting alone in 2012-13, according to USA Today. Closer to home, Connecticut’s recruiting budget is just over $1 million, although the Huskies devoted only $66,386 of that to men’s hockey last year, their first competing against Maine as a member of Hockey East.

University of Maine recruiters agree that the immediate goal is to persuade young athletes to give Orono a chance. Once they experience life on campus, visiting with parents, the selling becomes easier.

University of Maine recruiters agree that the immediate goal is to persuade young athletes to give Orono a chance. Once they experience life on campus, visiting with parents, the selling becomes easier. Kevin Bennett/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

The biggest challenge for recruiters at Maine is its location. No other school in the conferences the Black Bears compete in (the Colonial Athletic Association in football, Hockey East, and America East in all other sports) is as removed from a major metropolitan area.

“If we were to draw a 200-mile radius around the campus, every year I think on average you might get 1½ Division I-caliber players within that,” said Zak Boisvert, a Portland native who is an assistant men’s basketball coach at Maine. “There’s been talent cultivated here; there just isn’t it in the numbers that there is at other places.

“How do you work around geography? We’ve attacked it in different ways. We have nonstop flights to LaGuardia (in New York), so we can tell athletes down there, if you’re not going to a school right by you, within a one-hour drive, maybe flying an hour (to Bangor) is better than driving four hours.”

Women’s basketball, which has been on the rise in four years under Coach Richard Barron, has increasingly turned to Europe, home to eight players on this winter’s roster. Recruiting trips to that continent account for the program’s $56,192 in expenses last year, about $20,000 more than the men’s team spent. The women also won 20 more games than the men last year.

“I think Coach Barron gets a call every day from people asking what the secret is. There’s really not a secret anymore because there’s a lot of good players over there,” said Maine assistant coach Amy Vachon, a former Black Bear star who serves as the recruiting coordinator for the program and made her first recruiting trip to Europe this spring.

“For us, the AAU tournaments (the typical recruiting path in America) haven’t been successful recruiting-wise. You’ll go to a tournament in D.C. in July and there’ll be 400 coaches there. It’s just crazy, the money. It’s ridiculous.”

Is recruiting so far from home worth the expense? It can be for universities looking for a bump in exposure, said Robert Sternberg, a professor at Cornell who got a firsthand look at the fervor that winning sports teams can generate when he was a provost at Oklahoma State.

“People are attracted to winners,” Sternberg said. “When a university has a winning sports team, their applications go up. So that means they can be more selective, or they can take more students and make more money. The second thing you notice is that donations go up. People want to support winners, so it helps you get more alumni donations. And it also helps to get alumni involved who may have gotten disconnected. It also gets you more national press. All that attention is a tangible benefit.

“I also think that it creates a very positive spirit on campus. Students want to be proud of their university. It’s kind of infectious.”

UMaine may never get such national acclaim. But it’s obvious that winning is just as important in Orono as anywhere else major college sports are played. The administration has replaced the coaching staffs of three of its most high-profile sports in the past five years – in men’s hockey, and men’s and women’s basketball. All decisions were directly tied to a lack of victories.

There were factors for the subpar performances beyond recruiting, of course, but it’s hard to deny the correlation between coaching staffs landing talented athletes and winning games.

A fan watches the University of Maine football team practice Thursday at the Orono campus. A former offensive lineman for the team, Shawn Demaray, acts as recruiting coordinator.

A fan watches the University of Maine football team practice Thursday at the Orono campus. A former offensive lineman for the team, Shawn Demaray, acts as recruiting coordinator. Kevin Bennett/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

While every coach at Maine has some recruiting responsibilities, former Black Bear players like Guite and Vachon tend to take on lead roles. In football, the recruiting coordinator is Shawn Demaray, an offensive lineman at Maine before graduating in 2007. In men’s basketball, new Coach Bob Walsh is assisted by a youthful trio that includes Boisvert, Matt O’Brien and Antone Gray. Those coaches spent three weeks last month – a “live” recruiting period – at tournaments from Nevada to Massachusetts.

Guite, 37, wrapped up a 15-year professional career in 2013 before joining Red Gendron’s staff. He uses that recent past as a selling point. And he finds that recruiting still stokes his competitive fire.

“There’s some connection (with young players) in that I just left the game a couple of years ago. So I still have a feel for what the guys go through,” Guite said in his Alfond Arena office recently.

Out on the road, Guite runs into his counterparts in Hockey East and around the nation. Often, they are looking at the same player, and looking for an edge.

“I try to slash their tires,” Guite joked. “It’s just like anything else. There’s some people you get along with better than others. It’s pretty competitive.”

It helps that Guite isn’t averse to travel. He’ll drive as far as Philadelphia in search of players. In the summer, he might fly to Minneapolis, rent a car and make road trips to North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin to check out the latest teenage hockey talent, perusing athletes as young as 15.

Guite recruits most heavily in New England and his native Canada, keeping tabs on up to 50 potential Black Bears at one time. He flew to Europe once last year in an attempt to land a player who decided to turn pro over there instead.

“At least we didn’t lose him to UNH,” Guite said.

Boisvert, who came to Maine after working at Fairleigh Dickinson, said he enjoys the travel. Now that he’s based in Orono, he’s found ways to maximize the number of players he can see on a single trip. He described one journey south in which he arrived at Putnam Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts, in time for a recruit’s 6 a.m. workout, hustled down to New Jersey to check in on Devine Eke (who later committed to Maine) at 11 a.m., stopped by a junior college at 3 p.m. on his way to watching a prospect in the Bronx at 5:30 and wound up his day visiting a final player in Connecticut at 7:30.

“I’ve got a good car,” Boisvert said. “And the phone has changed those drives. Because an hour drive now is a chance to connect with a handful of people.”

Demaray, whose current recruiting area is southern New Jersey, is able to concentrate his trips during stretches that can last weeks. When the Black Bears’ season ended in November, he spent three weeks in New Jersey, estimating he visited 70 high schools at least once, returning if there was a player who piqued his interest. He also was able to visit some families in their homes, an important touch because recruiting is as much about selling a school to the parents as it is to the teenager.

“It’s not just athletic evaluations in play here. It’s also character evaluations,” Demaray said. “It’s also how does a kid treat his parents, how does he eat at the dinner table, how does he carry himself? The last thing you want to do is bring a bad kid up here because he’s going to get in trouble, he’s not going to stay anyway.”

The immediate goal, all Maine recruiters agree, is to persuade the young athletes to give Maine a chance, to come up to Orono, with parents in tow, for a campus visit. Once they experience life on campus, the selling becomes easier.

“A lot of times, they just fall in love with the place and the people,” said Vachon, a native of Augusta. “Once they come and visit and they see a game and they see the Cross Center, it’s like, ‘Holy wow, this is a really special place.’ ”

Recruiting occurs year-round, except for a few NCAA-mandated “dead periods.” The nuances involved – when you can call a young athlete, when you can text-message, what can be shared on social media, etc. – are so complex that universities all employ one or more “compliance officers” to help keep them from NCAA sanctions. The coaches must pass an annual test before being allowed to recruit.

The NCAA rules governing recruitment are so complex that universities all employ one or more “compliance officers.” At UMaine, that’s Eileen Flaherty, pictured here at her office at the Memorial Gym in Orono.

The NCAA rules governing recruitment are so complex that universities all employ one or more “compliance officers.” At UMaine, that’s Eileen Flaherty, pictured here at her office at the Memorial Gym in Orono. Michael C. York/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

At Maine, Eileen Flaherty oversaw compliance for the past five years, a role that made her equal parts lawyer/baby sitter/police officer – and Big Bad Wolf.

“You’re usually not the most fun person to be around. You go out to practice and you try to be in more of a ‘Yeah, good job’ mode and everyone starts looking at you like, ‘Who’s not eligible? Who’s getting pulled out of practice?’ And all it takes is you doing that once, and the whole team, every time you go out to practice, they think that,” she said.

Flaherty said the university self-reports 10 to 20 violations a year to the NCAA, usually for players getting extra benefits. But the job comes with a toll, she acknowledged.

“You don’t find too many people that are lifers in compliance. It can get you burnt out,” Flaherty said.

Indeed, weeks after she was interviewed, Flaherty left UMaine to become an athletic director at a high school in her home state of Massachusetts. Former softball coach Lynn Coutts was promoted to fill that job.

*****

UMaine basketball star Liz Wood was a small-town girl from Catlett, Virginia, who grew up fast through the dizzying, and ultimately wearying, process of college athletic recruiting.

The initial flush of letters from colleges was exciting when she was a high school freshman. When actual coaches started calling a couple of years later, the thrill intensified. By the time she was competing in elite AAU basketball tournaments, looking over and seeing the likes of Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Maryland’s Brenda Frese in the stands, Wood couldn’t believe her fortune, even if she knew they probably weren’t there to scout her.

“I got maybe dozens of letters. I don’t know if my mom still has them; she might have thrown them away. But I had a whole big box of them,” said Wood, a star forward for the Black Bears. “The first phone calls are really exciting just because it’s actually the coach you’re talking to and it’s not just a form letter that you’re getting. You’d see the (phone) number and you’d get all nervous and say, ‘Everybody be quiet!’ It was funny.”

Wood dismissed early overtures from Division II and III colleges, setting her sights on a Division I opportunity. In her junior year at Liberty High School, she started narrowing down her list of suitors, attending elite basketball camps at Ivy League schools Princeton and Penn, then scheduling official visits at Maine, Campbell and North Carolina-Asheville. A top student, Wood took the rare step of asking to sit in on a class on each of her visits.

“You need to just figure out what is important to you and portray that to the coaches. For me, it was academics,” Wood said. “I went to a class and met the dean of what my college would be. (In Orono), I went to a medical physiology class. … That’s probably rare. I’m a dork, so it makes sense.”

Wood chose Maine because she was sold on the vision Barron had for restoring pride in a program that had fallen on hard times. She wanted to go to a place where she could make an impact, and she has, averaging 13.8 points and 7.7 rebounds as the Black Bears went 23-9 last winter, when she was the junior backbone of the team.

Wood recalls how hard it was to let the coaches at Campbell, in North Carolina, know that she wasn’t coming. She had formed a tight connection with them as well during the recruiting process.

“I remember calling the assistant coach and telling her that I chose to go to Maine and she was like really sad. And she said, (Wood lets out a sigh), ‘Are you sure? That’s really a bummer.’ And I said, ‘I know,’ ” Wood said.

“But I think I grew a lot out of it, too, just making decisions on my own and realizing what I wanted in a school, in a degree and in a professional career one day. It was definitely overwhelming. It’s hard because it’s like your dreams are finally coming true, and then you’re stressed out about it.

“Now I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. It’s home now. Like now when I say I’m coming home, I’m talking about going to Orono. It’s really strange.”

University of Maine women’s basketball coach Edniesha Curry works out with student-athlete Liz Wood, far left, at the Memorial Gym recently. Wood said she was sold on Maine because of the vision coaches had for restoring pride in a program that had fallen on tough times.

University of Maine women’s basketball coach Edniesha Curry works out with student-athlete Liz Wood, far left, at the Memorial Gym recently. Wood said she was sold on Maine because of the vision coaches had for restoring pride in a program that had fallen on tough times. Kevin Bennett/Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

Recruiting may be a competition, but there’s never a scoreboard. For former athletes like Guite, it’s harder to know when you’ve “won,” or even when the game is over. Youngsters who commit to Maine may not show up on campus for years, or ever.

There are hopeful signs in Maine’s newest recruiting classes. Three future Black Bears were drafted by NHL teams in June, always a good omen. Among the newcomers this winter will be 6-foot-6 defenseman Stephen Cochrane of Hingham, Massachusetts.

“My mind was pretty set by January,” said Cochrane, who joined his fellow freshmen on campus July 26. “There were no other schools that I was too serious about. The fans were crazy and it was a great atmosphere. I liked the coaches. I’m very excited to get started up there.”

If Cochrane’s commitment was a celebratory moment for Guite, he’s seen the flip side as well. He recalls being heavily recruited by five colleges in his native Montreal, but all of the activity was confined to his senior year, when he chose Maine.

Now schools are looking at players at age 15, or younger. Athletes can start taking official visits – meaning the universities foot the bill – in the spring of their junior years, but that’s even too late for many. Guite estimates that half of the Black Bears’ recruits don’t come on official visits because they’re too young.

Two years ago, Oliver Wahlstrom made headlines as a 13-year-old by announcing his verbal commitment to Maine. But in July, he reconsidered that decision. Commitments aren’t binding until athletes sign National Letters of Intent.

It’s that built-in fluidity that is most challenging for Guite and his peers.

“I follow kids on Twitter just to let me know where the kids are going,” Guite said. “Oftentimes, that’s how I figure out that a kid that we’re recruiting decided to go somewhere else. I’d say 50 percent have the common courtesy to call you before they make up their mind. But sometimes you have to figure it out and cross them off the list and move on to the next one.”

Knowing when to move on is an integral strategy for recruiters. Talented athletes, the kind that can make a difference at low-level Division I universities like Maine, are in demand.

Boisvert, a UMaine employee for only 15 months, knows this all too well.

“It’s a difficult balance between trying to get the best player you can get but also not getting into recruiting battles that you can’t win and wasting your time,” he said. “When a bigger school like Boston College calls, all of a sudden all the work you did, it goes out the window.”

Being jilted occasionally is part of the game, and recruiters know it. But Renkens, the recruiting expert who coached for years at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, said disappointment can be a two-way street when so much is riding on an athlete’s college decision. Some youngsters play colleges against each other, waiting for the best deal. Others can end up feeling used when a recruiter’s interest cools off.

“This is a business. You take Assumption, tuition is $52,000 a year. As a recruiter, when I pull into your driveway, I’ve got a folder on you. I know your dog’s name, everything about your family. I’ve sent your mom and dad an anniversary card,” Renkens said. “I get these emails from kids, they use words like ‘lie’ and ‘deceived.’ The coaches didn’t lie. They told you what you wanted to hear.

“Hearts are broken. On both ends.”