ORONO — Dennis “Red” Gendron has been a coach on championship hockey teams in high school, college and the NHL. The hockey faithful are hoping he can now restore the luster at the University of Maine.
The Black Bears have fallen on unaccustomed hard times following years of success. With a losing record in three of the past six years and an eroding fan base, the university fired 12-year coach Tim Whitehead and hired Gendron as his replacement.
Gendron, 55, knows it’ll take more than magic to revitalize the school’s marquee sport. His first game is Friday, when the team travels to St. Lawrence University for a season-opening series.
“We’re about winning championships,” Gendron said last week in an interview at Alfond Arena during the team’s media day. “To do that, we have to get better every day in every single thing we do. It’s a function of how we practice, how we train, how we recruit, how we coach, how we exercise our responsibilities in terms of program-building and raising money.
“That’s how you achieve that.”
Maine has had an elite hockey program since the 1980s. Between 1988 and 2007, the team made 11 Frozen Four appearances, won two national championships and lost in two other title games.
The Black Bears first became a national power under coach Shawn Walsh, winning national championships in 1993 and 1999. Whitehead took over for the 2001-2002 season, after Walsh died of a rare form of cancer at the age of 46, and led the team to four Frozen Fours in his first six seasons.
But with mediocre teams and only one NCAA tournament appearance in the past six years, Whitehead was let go in April.
A broad-shouldered man with a full mop of white hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, Gendron’s no stranger to Orono. He was an assistant to Walsh for three years — back when his hair and mustache were red, earning him his nickname — including the 1993 championship season when the team went 41-1-2.
The titles didn’t stop there. He later served as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils during their 1995 Stanley Cup championship season, and was also on staff last year at Yale, which won the NCAA championship in Pittsburgh.
In Orono, Gendron’s being counted on to put wins on the board, yes. But he’s also expected to put more fans in Alfond Arena, a loud and boisterous venue that can be imposing when its 5,100 seats are filled. Full houses have been rare in recent years, and season-ticket sales fell from 3,665 in 2007-2008 to 1,965 last year.
Besides Gendron’s track record of winning, university officials liked his northern New England roots, said Maine athletic director Steve Abbott. Gendron grew up in Berlin, N.H., coached high school in Vermont during the 1980s and coached and earned a master’s degree at Maine.
Gendron has already become a fixture in Orono, bringing positive energy when eating in the campus dining hall or at the local pizza joint, Abbot said. “What is noticeably different is the enthusiasm and the interest around the hockey program,” he said.
At the team’s media day, players said they’ve also sensed a renewed excitement around campus.
“There’s kind of that rejuvenated fresh start. We’re all excited to go,” said Devin Shore, a sophomore from Ontario who was the team’s leading scorer last year.
At Yale, Gendron was the “complete package” who earned the respect and trust of the players while knowing when to be firm, said Keith Allain, Yale’s head coach who’s known Gendron for three decades.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before (Maine’s) knocking on the door for a championship,” he said.
Gendron considers himself an educator first, but knows why he’s here.
“Make no mistake about it, you don’t solve the lack of revenue of fewer people buying tickets by me going out and smiling at folks and shaking hands and saying, ‘Come over to the Alfond and watch us lose,’ ” he said. “That doesn’t work.
“You have to win.”