ORONO — Sticks and gloves flew into the air the way they do in the midst of a chaotic celebration, but Bobby Stewart lingered a little longer on the Black Bears bench.

Marcus Gustafsson had just scored in overtime to lift the University of Maine over rival New Hampshire, 3-2, in the NCAA championship game in Anaheim, California. The date was April 3, 1999, the second national title for the UMaine hockey program in seven years. Stewart, a senior forward, remembered the entire sensation of winning as surreal.

“I could tell you that I hope they never win it again, so I can say that I was part of Maine’s last national championship,” Stewart said last week from his home in Toronto. “But that would be (expletive).”

Once elevated to rock star status in Maine, the Black Bears have fallen from the ranks of the nation’s elite. The 1999 championship was their last national title. Maine played in the NCAA Frozen Four five more times after 1999, last appearing in 2007. The Black Bears haven’t even made the NCAA tournament since 2012.

The team once played before sellout crowds as a national title contender, but attendance at aging Alfond Arena has dropped by nearly 30 percent since 1999 as the program’s relevance has declined. The Black Bears have gone 82-115-25 in six years under head coach Red Gendron.

The coaching staff and athletic administration are optimistic that the hockey program can rebound. But observers of the program are getting frustrated and wary about whether the team can return to prominence.

Two of Stewart’s teammates on the 1999 team – Ben Guite and Alfie Michaud – are assistant coaches under Gendron and face the task of recruiting in an era with far more college hockey programs and greater competition for talent.

“I love those guys like they are my brothers,” Stewart said of Maine’s current coaching staff. “But enough is enough. It’s time to win.”

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

The Black Bears were far from a national power when Shawn Walsh took over the program in 1984. But three seasons later Maine earned its first NCAA tournament appearance. The Black Bears then went to the Frozen Four in 1987 and 1988 before winning the program’s first national title in 1993 with a team that went an astounding 42-1-2.

A series of NCAA investigations threatened to derail the program, but Walsh returned from a one-year suspension in the 1996-97 season and guided the team to its second national title in 1999.

Maine players celebrate winning the NCAA Division 1 hockey championship on April 3, 1999. Herb Swanson/Staff Photographer

“We were the Camelot of college hockey. We had this special place in an outpost of New England producing NHL players and a developmental model that had credibility to it. It was unique,” said Greg Cronin, who spent six years as a coach at Maine, including one season as the team’s head coach while Walsh served his suspension. “Jean Yves Roy, Cal Ingraham, Peter Metcalf. They were like the misfit toys that nobody wanted. We fixed them up and and made them into All-Americans.

“Maine has lost that.”

Walsh was later diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer and died in September 2001. Tim Whitehead was named the next head coach, and he coached the Black Bears for 12 seasons, taking them to the NCAA tournament seven times, including Frozen Four appearances in 2001-02, 2003-04, 2005-06 and 2006-07.

He was fired as Maine’s head coach following the 2012 season, after leading Maine to 23 victories and the Hockey East regular-season championship.

“It wasn’t enough,” Whitehead said from his office at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire, where he is the boys’ hockey coach.

“I still believe there’s no better place in college hockey to play than the University of Maine and Alfond Arena,” said Whitehead, who was the 2002 national coach of the year. “I’m rooting for them. I know how difficult it is to get to the (NCAA) tournament, let alone Frozen Fours and to win championships.”

Maine’s situation is not unique in Division I hockey.

This year’s NCAA tournament began last weekend and its field of 16 failed to include traditional powers Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College, Boston University, Michigan and North Dakota. It marked the first time since 1970 that none of those schools participated in the postseason at the national level.

“As you see more big schools take hockey seriously, it changes the calculus,” said Ken Ralph, Maine’s athletic director. “I think (UMaine hockey) is the program that still has the most visibility. You don’t see the fervency you used to see 25 years ago. I think that’s waned a little bit – and there’s a number of factors that contribute to that. The school is trying do an awful lot with very modest resources.”

In 2014, Maine launched the Savage Challenge, in which longtime Black Bears supporter Tom Savage pledged to match donations of up to $1 million earmarked strictly for Maine’s hockey program. It was expected to be generate $2 million by 2019.

“That goal has not been met,” Ralph said.

RECRUITING WARS

In the information age, recruiting battles are increasingly more difficult to win.

While 20 years ago players waited until they were 17 or 18 years of age before committing to schools, now it’s not uncommon for 13- or 14-year-olds to have verbally committed to college. With more attention on junior hockey now, too, junior coaches are reluctant to let their top players leave on recruiting weekends. As a result, visiting prospects see an empty arena midweek instead of a bustling Alfond on game nights, with its raucous student balcony and pep band filling the rafters with noise.

Coaches must identify players when they are younger, hoping they blossom into the talent they envision. Ralph mentioned Alfond Arena’s age as a detriment to recruiting players who weren’t even born the last time Maine won the national championship.

Ben Guite and Alfie Michaud played significant roles in Maine’s 1999 national championship season – Guite scored the title game’s opening goal and Michaud made 46 saves to preserve the win. Today, they are tasked with recruiting the next wave of Black Bears.

“It’s very personal for me,” Guite said of turning the program around. “There’s no question it’s frustrating. Look at Red’s pedigree, at Alfie’s pedigree. They haven’t forgotten how to do this. You’re winners. You’ve won. You’re constantly pursuing that. As frustrating as it is, there is a process.”

Stewart said the problem is that Maine entered into an arms race for blue-chip recruits in the late 2000s that it could not win.

“I think saying it’s the recruiting and the facilities is a huge cop-out,” Stewart said. “My investment was I was told I was going to win a national championship. … No offense to Maine as an accredited university, but if I’m just worried about school, that’s probably not where I’m going.”

But Stewart says the Maine hockey program may be turning the corner. “I think Benny and Alfie are starting to find the right kids.”

Guite said Maine’s recruiting now centers on finding the right fit for the program and not always the most talented player available.

“It’s the kids that want to be here, the ones who step on campus and it’s love at first sight,” he said. “It’s character kids who understand that it’s a blue-collar club we have here, who aren’t afraid to put in the work. And, yes, there are expectations here. So you have to have kids that can handle that.”

EMPTYING ALFOND

Alfond Arena is 43 years old, and the $4.85 million in upgrades it received in 2011 have not been enough. Within Hockey East, only Providence College and Northeastern University have older rinks, but both of those buildings underwent significant transformations within the last decade, each with price tags nearly three times the investment poured into Alfond eight years ago, according to reports.

More troubling, the Alfond is showing wear and tear of a different variety.

In 1999, Maine played to an average home crowd of 5,420 each night, a sellout in the cozy confines of a raucous little barn with a rabid student section almost literally hanging over the ice from the balcony end. This season, an average of only 3,793 fans trudged into the arena on game nights, a drop of more than 30 percent in attendance from the program’s days as a national powerhouse.

Ryan Sweeney, a 35-year-old Millinocket native who now lives in Sidney, did not attend a game this season for the first time in almost three decades of following the program.

“My wife and I had season tickets for a few years. I’d always wanted them, and I was thrilled when I was finally able to make it happen,” Sweeney said. “This year, it was hard to justify it.

“There’s seems to be a real disconnect between the product and the tickets (prices). It hurts. They’re my favorite team. I’m a die-hard sports fan – Packers, Cubs, through and through, the Bruins, too. But Maine hockey is ‘the team’ for me, and it always has been.”

Single-game ticket prices for Maine hockey were $24 and $50 this season, with no discounts for children. By contrast, the Maine Mariners – an East Coast Hockey League team that plays in Portland – charge as little as $18 per ticket, with youth tickets available for $10.

Declining attendance means a drop in the program’s revenue, while expenses for items like recruiting, travel and hockey equipment continue to rise.

“If you don’t meet your revenue target, your expense budget is compromised,” said Ralph, UMaine’s athletic director, noting a “minor” drop in revenue this season over last year.

OPTIMISM IN ORONO

The Black Bears have not finished better than tied for fifth in the final standings in Hockey East since 2012. Gendron was hired as head coach the following year after serving as an assistant on Yale’s 2012 NCAA championship team.

“The mission is to be consistently good all the time, and that’s what I came back to try to do,” said Gendron, who was an assistant coach under Walsh when Maine won the 1993 national title. “I understand what the realities are, but I never make excuses. As my old boss used to say, ‘Good isn’t good enough where better is expected.’ ”

Gendron, who has two years remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2018, thinks the Black Bears are closer than people might believe. After winning just 10 Hockey East games combined in 2015-16, Maine has won twice that many in the last two seasons.

“I know we’re in position to start having the kind of success I came back here hoping to achieve,” Gendron said. “If I didn’t think we were on that path, I’d be pretty angry. We have more work to do, that’s all.”

Under Gendron, Maine has lost three Hockey East quarterfinal-round series without winning a game and is 4-10 overall in postseason play.

“To me, expectations, it’s winning playoff games,” said Sweeney, the former season-ticket holder. “I think what’s reasonable for fans is getting to the NCAA tournament a couple of times in the next five years, maybe win a game there.”

As the years pass and Maine’s stretch of seasons ending without a national tournament appearance reaches nine years, the Maine athletic department preaches patience.

“A lot of people are living in the glory days,” said Ralph, who came to Maine last summer from Colorado College, another once-proud hockey school. “They don’t always want to recognize that it’s not just college hockey that’s changed, it’s the feeder system, too.

“Schools like Lake Superior State, Bowling Green, Clarkson, they had to reinvent themselves in order to get back there. We have to get people to understand that the game has changed.”

Travis Barrett can be contacted at 621-5621 or at:

tbarret[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC