By MARK EMMERT
Portland Press Herald
ORONO — Maine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron began the final, pivotal week of the regular season with an email to his players.
“I laid it out for them what the weekend means in terms of playoff positioning and told them other things about how to handle the distractions,” Gendron said.
On Tuesday, he sent a letter to the team’s fans, urging them to pack Alfond Arena for the Friday-Saturday series against Providence. Students are heading out on spring break, and Maine has enjoyed one of the starkest home-ice advantages in college hockey. At Alfond, the Black Bears are 12-1, including the lone conference defeat for Boston College. On the road, they are 1-10-3.
“When this place is full, it’s a place that gives us energy,” Gendron said.
No. 18 Maine is 15-11-4 overall, 9-6-3 in Hockey East. That puts the Black Bears in fourth place, but they can finish anywhere from second to seventh when the season ends Saturday. The top five teams will get a first-round bye in next weekend’s playoffs. The top four earn home ice in the quarterfinals the following weekend.
No. 12 Providence (17-9-6, 9-7-2) lurks one point behind Maine, and faces the same urgency. In addition to the Hockey East implications, both teams are on the bubble of making the NCAA Tournament. A sweep for either would be a huge step toward that goal.
None of this is lost on the players, even before Gendron’s email. But for centers Jon and Steven Swavely, the final games of this season are particularly meaningful. The brothers from Reading, Pa., are seeing their precious playing days together winding down.
“It’s a sad thing. These have been the greatest four years of my life,” said Jon, a senior. “I don’t want this to be the last weekend I play here, and I’ll do everything I can on the ice to make sure that doesn’t happen. But it’s my time, It’s in the back of your head. It’s definitely going to be an emotional weekend.”
Jon Swavely has played in 113 games at Maine, but only the past two seasons alongside Steven, a sophomore. Jon, at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, has found himself centering the Black Bear checking line and proved vital on the penalty kill. He has just six goals in his career, which is not nearly how he envisioned it.
“I’ve honed a part of my game that I didn’t foresee coming in,” he said. “I’m happy with what I’ve done. I feel like I’ve put it all on the ice, and that’s the most important thing.”
He also paved the way for his brother’s success. The boys grew up in a basketball family, but a relative played football at Maine, so there was a Black Bear jersey hanging in Jon’s bedroom from age 7. One day, their father, Gary, took their mother, Susan, to a hockey game and fate soon took over.
The Swavelys learned the sport together, playing on the same line whenever they could, one year in high school, one on a travel team. When Jon played juniors with the New Jersey Hitmen, Steven followed in his footsteps. When Jon chose to attend Maine, Steven’s future was set, too.
“There’s nothing like playing with your brother at this level,” Steven said. “I knew this is where I wanted to be from the beginning, as soon as he committed here.”
Steven is 6-1, 190 pounds, and has displayed his versatility this season. He’s centered his own line, played forward on Devin Shore’s top line, been on the power play and the penalty kill. Steven has eight goals this season.
But it was the first goal of his career, in last year’s opener against Quinnipiac, that may have set the tone for his career.
The Swavelys were on the same line then, with Steven at center. On the first shift of his college career — feeling nervous and scared — Steven stepped into the faceoff circle … and promptly got kicked out by the official.
Jon stepped in, won the faceoff, putting the puck on Steven’s stick. Little brother shot and scored.
Assist Swavely. Goal Swavely.
“You couldn’t have written it up any better than that,” Steven said.
“He’s paved the way for me in my career. I wouldn’t be here without him. He’s taught me everything.”
Jon said his brother hasn’t needed much coaching, but that it’s been an honor to play with him.
“He’s going to be something special. I’m happy for him and where his career is headed,” Jon Swavely said.
“He’ll be in my shoes soon. I think he understands maybe better than I did that you only have four years here, you make the most of your time. Because he has me here and he sees me moving on as a senior. It’s bittersweet, for sure.”