The University of Maine men’s ice hockey team doesn’t have a coach.

Well, that’s not accurate. The Black Bears have Bob Corkum, who, since Tim Whitehead was fired a couple weeks ago, has served as interim coach of the team. But interim is fleeting. When a coach is tagged with the interim label, there’s no sense of control, only a sense of chair filling.

The only word that conjures less respect than interim is substitute.

Maine has its search committee in place, now the search begins. It might take a while, and you know what? It should.

Maine is filling the school’s marquee job. Coming off of just one trip to the NCAA tournament in six years, this hire is the most important coaching hire in the history of University of Maine athletics. Get it right, and the team is back among the top teams not just in Hockey East, in the nation. The right coach will boost the win total, and with it, the bottom line, as the Black Bears fill Alfond Arena night after night.

Get it wrong, and Maine continues to be irrelevant, just another team. The Black Bears continue to play in front of smaller crowds, and the comparisons to Lake Superior State continue. Lake Superior State was a college hockey juggernaut, winning three national titles between 1988 and 1994. The Lakers haven’t played in the NCAA tournament since 1996.

Fans are already clamoring that the search is taking too long. Message boards are chock full of the rantings of fans who are crazy mad because Maine didn’t land Jim Montgomery. On Monday, Montgomery, the leading scorer in Maine hockey history with 301 points (103 goals, 198 assists), was named head coach at the University of Denver.

On paper, Montgomery looks like the perfect fit at Maine. He was an All-American for the Black Bears, and captained the first national championship team in 1993. He played years of professional hockey. He was an assistant coach at the Division I level before spending the last three seasons as head coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the Junior A United States Hockey League.

Montgomery knows the kind of players Maine needs to be a top flight program, because he’s coached them and he’s been one.

Montgomery’s resume is not pristine, though. The elephant in the room is a drunk driving conviction. Would this have been a deal breaker with Maine? It’s hard to say, but it has to be considered. Maine is a public institution, and may be unable to overlook such a blemish, no matter how strong the candidate. Denver is a private school, and does not have to answer to a state legislature.

Montgomery aside, Maine will have a deep pool of candidates from which to select a new head coach. There’s George Gwozdecky, Montgomery’s predecessor at Denver, who led the Pioneers to back-to-back national titles in 2004 and 2005. Scott Pellerin, who won the 1992 Hobey Baker award while playing for Maine and is now the head coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the American Hockey League. Jim Tortorella, former Colby head coach and current assistant at the University of New Hampshire, would be a good choice.

Greg Cronin, who filled in for Shawn Walsh when he served a year-long suspension in 1996 and later was head coach at Northeastern should be a candidate. Taking the interim label off of Corkum, a longtime NHL player who has coached at the junior and college levels for years could be the right move.

There may even be a young up and coming coach with no name recognition, somebody like Walsh all those years ago. Somebody who just needs a chance.

Maine has options. Athletic director Steve Abbott and his selection committee need to weigh them all, and weigh them carefully. Hockey East is a tough conference, and with the impending additions of Notre Dame and the University of Connecticut, it’s only getting tougher.

Are the Black Bears going to regain relevance, or are they going to be one of those lost programs, one of the teams that used to be a contender? The committee needs to take its time, because this is one it cannot get wrong.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

 

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