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Rich Kimball Rich Kimball
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Small state, big dreams

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Maine is a small state. For most of us, most of the time, that's a good thing. We've chosen to live a bit off the beaten path because we prefer the somewhat slower pace, the open spaces and (bath salts addicts notwithstanding) the fact that things are relatively safe around here. Small is good when it means few traffic jams, a lack of smog, and the front page of the paper is devoted to hermits and not serial killers. One downside is the occasional lack of perspective and the need to have a taste of the big time life, which leads me to the subject of University of Maine hockey.

 

Youngsters may be surprised to learn that Maine was not always obsessed with hockey and that there once was a time when the only action on the ice in these parts involved fishing or slipping on the sidewalk. The modern era of Maine hockey began when your state university started the program in 1977 in the slick new Alfond Arena, with a coach by the name of Jack Semler. It was a fun time to go see this new-fangled enterprise. Tickets were easy to get, and the hardy souls who trekked to the arena were rewarded by seeing talents like Gary Conn and Andre Aubut and cheered, sometimes for the wrong reasons, as they learned the complexities of a game most had only seen on television. The Black Bears had some success in those early years, but with the move to Division I, the team hit a rough patch.

In 1984, athletic director Stu Haskell hired a young coach named Shawn Walsh to replace Semler. Walsh had been a third-string goalie at Bowling Green and became, at the time, the youngest Division I coach in the nation. Haskell, though, saw a fire and passion for the game in Walsh and believed he was the man to lead the team into the new league known as Hockey East. Walsh endured a couple of tough seasons but was bringing in a talented crop of recruits and those efforts would pay off in 1986, with not only his first winning record, but a trip to the NCAA Tourney. 

This was heady stuff for Maine fans. Sure, they had tasted NCAA success with John Winkin's baseball teams, but hockey offered the promise of something more. With barely a few dozen D-1 teams, simple math told them that these hockey Bears had the best chance of any team to reach the promised land of a national title. Tickets suddenly became harder to get, fans became more rabid, the Alfond was expanded in 1992 to accommodate their growing numbers, and Maine hockey transcended sport in many ways to become an honest-to-goodness social event. Special status was reserved for those who got closest to the players, through programs like 'surrogate' families, which provided a home away from home for the Bears, all the while walking the tightrope of NCAA regulations.

Finally in 1993, a magical season granted the wish of hard-core fans and hangers-on from Kittery to Ft. Kent, as Maine went 42-1-2 and captured the national championship. Walsh and his players were certified heroes and a generation of young boys dreamed that they too could skate for the Bears. Visions of scholarships danced in their parents' heads.

While the celebrations were fresh in their minds, fans got a taste of the dark underbelly of college sports success when, in 1995, an NCAA investigation ruled that Walsh and Maine had violated the rules. The Bears were placed on probation and Walsh was suspended for a year for, among other things, interfering with the investigation. It was a black mark for the university with some even suggesting they should vacate the 1993 title, but the ban on playoffs and suspension of the coach were the worst of the penalties. Many Maine fans responded not with shame, but anger - not at the coach who got the team in trouble, but at the NCAA and those who would dare to question his motives. Surely, some suggested, it was simply a case of jealousy.

Walsh would return the team to prominence with another title before he succumbed to cancer in 2001, turning the reins of the team over to former assistant Tim Whitehead on an interim basis.  As Walsh's hand-picked successor, he was greeted with open arms by the fandom, who saw him continuing the Walsh legacy. When Whitehead guided the Bears to the title game, he was rewarded with having the interim tag removed, as well as Coach of the Year honors, and fans could easily dream of more hardware in their future.

There would be success under the new coach, including another trip to the championship game, but Whitehead failed to bring home the gold. Fans who were accustomed to being on top began to question the new man's style. He wasn't  a screamer like Walsh, he didn't constantly berate the officials, and to some that meant he was lacking the fire needed to win like his predecessor. When the Bears failed to even make the Hockey East playoffs in 2008, fans were already abandoning ship. The loss of assistant Grant Standbrook was a crucial departure, not only for his ability to spot talent, but to transform it, especially at the goaltender position. Suddenly, Maine was no longer a powerhouse, while other once-laughable progams had grown in prominence. Never mind that the school was not making the same kind of financial commitment as many competitors - in the eyes of the fans, the blame was solely Whitehead's.

Finally last week, after a difficult season that saw Maine win just twice at the former fortress of Alfond, the axe fell on Tim Whitehead, a good and decent man and talented coach, whose biggest crime may have been not being Shawn Walsh. The landscape of college hockey has changed greatly in a decade, and the hardcores who believe this program is a coach away from bringing more championships to Maine may find the road is not as easy as they imagine. 

The call has gone out from the land of 'Go Blue' that the solution to the problem is to recapture the glory days by reaching out to one of the many former Black Bear heroes who have gone on to coach. While that may be a starting point, it will likely take more than a new boss for Maine to reach the heights. College hockey's a funny sport. There are only 59 D-1 teams in the nation, and its popularity is regional at best. One need look no further than the national title game between Quinnipiac and Yale to realize that hockey's not quite a priority for the typical powers of collegiate athletics. Mainers don't get many chances to be the big kid on the block, so the desire to get back there is understandable. Here's hoping that fans have realistic expectations for the new coach, are able to step back and see the big picture, and don't let small state pride obscure their vision of reality.

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