For the University of Maine hockey team, the annual post-Christmas trip to Florida has become a saga much akin to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” a movie chronicling the misfortunes that arise when comedians John Candy and Steve Martin attempt to travel from New York to Chicago for the holidays.

Each year, the Black Bears prepare for what seems to be a smooth trip: a charter bus from Orono to Boston, a flight to Florida’s Gulf Coast for the Florida College Classic in Estero, Fla., about 20 miles south of Fort Myers.

Inevitably, something happens.

Maine plays its opening-round game at 7:30 tonight against Miami of Ohio. But the massive snowstorm that hit the Northeast on Sunday and Monday upset Maine’s travel plans. The flight out of Boston was cancelled, forcing the Black Bears to bus through Monday’s blizzard and take a charter flight from Manchester, N.H., to Fort Myers.

“When we were driving through the storm, we weren’t sure what would happen,” said senior defenseman Mike Banwell, who drove to Orono from his home in Scarborough, Ontario, after his weekend flight out of Toronto was cancelled. “(Tuesday) morning, everything went smoothly.”

Joey Diamond took the last train from New York to Boston, then joined the team in Manchester, as did sophomore goalie Shawn Sirman.

A handful of players, including Robby Dee, Spencer Abbott, Josh Van Dyk and Carlos Amestoy, changed their flights to Florida to join the team.

Klas Leidermark’s flight out of Sweden was cancelled, and he will not join the team until Saturday.

“The coaches and staff, we’ve learned to adapt each year,” Maine Coach Tim Whitehead said. “The guys understand anything can happen.”

Now that the Black Bears have arrived in Florida, their focus is on Miami, a team ranked sixth in both national polls; Maine is eighth in one poll, ninth in the other.

Tonight’s winner will face either St. Cloud State or Cornell in the tournament final at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The losing teams play in the consolation game at 4.

The Black Bears are coming off a 17-day layoff to face the RedHawks, who made the Frozen Four the past two years.

“(Tonight’s game is) important for us, just because it’s our first game back,” Banwell said. “We’re hoping it’s a tight game. They’re a good squad, and it will be a test for us. They’ve got a lot of offensive power.”

The RedHawks feature the nation’s two leading scorers in Carter Camper (13 goals, 22 assists) and Andy Miele (eight, 23), as well as a strong third-line center in Pat Cannone (seven, 12). In addition, Miami has the nation’s third-best penalty-killing unit.

“Those three are all veterans with high skills and speed, who are playmakers and scorers,” Whitehead said. “That’s a strength up the middle. They’re going to give us a lot to handle.”

One player who will be back in Maine’s lineup — and whose travel plans went smoothly — is defenseman Will O’Neill. The junior missed eight games because of a knee injury, and his presence on the point will help firm up Maine’s power play, which is fourth in Hockey East but 34th in the nation (17 for 103). Maine is just 4 for 45 with the man advantage in its last eight games.

“He’s just a great offensive addition, especially since our power play hasn’t been clicking,” Maine right wing Gustav Nyquist said. “He’s going to be a big contributor on that.”

 

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be contacted at 791-6415 or at:

[email protected]WHEN: 7:30 tonight

WHERE: Germain Arena, Estero, Fla.

RADIO: WLOB-AM (1310)

 

MIAMI (Ohio): The RedHawks have become one of college hockey’s elite programs, playing in the past two Frozen Fours. Miami has the No. 2 offense in the nation behind Yale, averaging 3.83 goals a game. Senior forward Carter Camper leads the nation in scoring with 13 goals and 22 assists in 18 games, while teammate Andy Miele is second with eight goals and 23 assists in 18 games. The RedHawks also have the third-best penalty kill in the nation (89.4 percent), behind Merrimack and Boston College.

 

MAINE: The Black Bears resume their schedule after a 17-day break and open the annual holiday tournament, which Maine co-hosts with Cornell, against Miami — its sixth ranked opponent this season. The Black Bears not only have to maintain and protect a lead against Miami, protect their goalie and capitalize on the power play against the RedHawks. Spencer Abbott leads the Black Bears with 11 goals and 10 assists and is tied for third in scoring in Hockey East. Junior defenseman Will O’Neill is expected to be available for the tourney. He has missed eight games with a knee injury.

 

NOTE: St. Cloud State (5-11-2) faces Cornell (4-6-1) at 4 p.m. in the tournament opener. Today’s winners advance to the title game at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Losers play at 4 in the third-place game.

 

DID YOU KNOW? Maine is 5-0 against Miami but today’s Florida College Classic semifinal will be the first meeting between the Black Bears and the RedHawks in more than 15 years. Maine beat Miami 6-5 on Oct. 13, 1995, at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles.

 

— Rachel Lenzi