October 1, 2013

Steve Solloway: Turning the page in new UMaine hockey chapter

ORONO - One moment Blaine Byron was talking into a microphone, and in the next he was reeling and laughing. The well-aimed shaving cream pie smacked the touted freshman hockey forward full in the face, from hairline to chin.

Welcome to the University of Maine, kid.

I looked for Red Gendron, the new head coach. In the spirit of Monday's media day on the ice at Alfond Arena, maybe there was another pie waiting for him.

Not likely. His players have already heard his bark in preseason practice. They can imagine his bite.

Maine hockey plays its first exhibition game of the 2013-14 season Sunday afternoon at home against Dalhousie University of Nova Scotia. Two nonconference regular-season games follow, Oct. 11-12 against St. Lawrence in Canton, N.Y.

It's been five short months since Gendron was hired to replace Tim Whitehead. Five months to plan and lay the groundwork to restore Maine hockey to national prominence. Not to mention winning back the fans who made the Black Bears the state's most popular team.

"We're all anxious," said Mark Anthoine, a senior forward from Lewiston. "It's not just the fans. We want to see how good we are."

I spied Gendron at the far end of the arena, on the concourse above the entrance to the Maine locker room. He was so removed from his players on the ice, who posed for photos in their game uniforms and talked.

"He's very approachable," said Anthoine. "I could be talking to him just like I'm talking to you. But if you do something wrong you'll know. He has that glary look and he'll say something, right there.

"He's a big guy and he makes his presence felt in a very powerful way."

Anthoine is one of five seniors on the team. He's played in 93 consecutive games, a streak no teammate can match. He remembers his sophomore season when Maine reached the NCAA regional and finished 23-14-2. He had 12 goals, seven assists.

He remembers last year, too. The 11-19-8 record and quick exit from the Hockey East playoffs and the rebellion among fans who wanted Whitehead gone.

"Coach Whitehead gave me my opportunities to play," said Anthoine. "I won't forget that. Coach Gendron has a different personality. He coaches differently.

"You listen when he talks. Everyone listens."

Gendron won't wait for a moment alone with a player when he talks or barks. "He holds us all accountable," said Jake Rutt, a junior defenseman from Scarborough.

"If you're not doing something right, he won't care if there are 10 or 15 people listening or 200.

"We're turning the page and we probably needed that. He's not here to make friends but I know I can go talk to him anytime."

Rutt grew up in Augusta and lives in Scarborough. He hears Mainers talk about their hockey team. Expectations of a turnaround season are high.

Dan Renouf is a freshman defenseman from Ontario. He visited several Hockey East schools but was sold on the noise and excitement inside Alfond Arena on game days. He didn't pick up on the discontent among fans. He bought Whitehead's recruiting pitch.

Now he's playing for Gendron. But in the small world that is elite Division I hockey, Renouf had already met Gendron and understood the big man's very direct way of communicating.

Maine was picked to finish eighth in the Hockey East preseason poll. Anthoine didn't wave away the prediction. "It's incentive for all of us. Talk to me again in March." When the postseason tournaments are played.

Up the steps to the concourse I joined the line to talk to the new coach, knowing before the first game is played there are no real answers to real questions.

"We're still in the get-to-know-one-another phase," Gendron said of his players. "Being a coach is really forging relationships. I'm here to help each one grow as a person, as a player and as a student."

The small smile played on his mouth. "I'm just a teacher whose curriculum is hockey."

Pay attention. Class has begun.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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