Maine hockey coach Red Gendron wouldn’t divulge who will lead his team onto the ice when the season begins Friday in Portland.

But he had one promise for Black Bear fans gathering for the Ice Breaker tournament at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I can tell you they’re going to compete like dogs and they’re going to fight from the opening puck drop ’til the final buzzer, and they’re going to stick together doing it. That I know,” Gendron said of his players. “And if that’s good enough to get us wins, then God bless us and keep us.”

Maine faces Michigan State at 8 p.m. and the biggest contrast between the teams is experience. The Spartans have 20 players from a 17-16-2 season; the Black Bears are breaking in nine freshmen after going 14-22-3 a year ago.

Nowhere is that experience gap more pronounced than at goaltender.

Maine split duties between Matt Morris (2.99 goals-against average, .905 save percentage) and Sean Romeo (3.04, .902) last year, when inconsistency was a theme at the position. Gendron said neither has separated himself this year either, making it likely both will play this weekend. Maine also plays No. 4 North Dakota at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“I don’t care who, how many play. If they play well, that’s what we’re looking for. So I’m as open-minded as you can be,” Gendron said of his goalies.

Michigan State will counter with senior All-American Jake Hildebrand, who played all 35 games last year, and ended with a 2.18 GAA and .930 save percentage. At the outset of a season, when play is often choppy, there’s no better relief for a coach than to know he has a proven goaltender, said Tom Anastos of the Spartans.

“I think it’s terrific to have somebody that’s demonstrated a high level of ability and a high level of performance and, most importantly, he’s earned a high level of trust from his teammates and gives us a chance every night. That’s a great place to start,” said Anastos, in his fifth season with Michigan State.

The Spartans led the Big Ten, allowing 2.29 goals per game last season, but only had three more goals than they allowed.

Senior defenseman Travis Walsh is looking for a big leap in scoring.

“I’m excited to see what our team can do offensively this year,” he said. “I think we have the skill this year that we haven’t had the last couple years, just the experience to contribute more offensively. (Hildebrand’s) going to keep us in every game so I’m just excited to see what we can do on that front.”

Walsh is the Spartan most familiar with Maine’s players. The 22-year-old son of the late Maine coach Shawn Walsh returns to his native Bangor every summer and spends time skating with the incoming Black Bears.

“It seems like they have some size,” he said. “I’m sure they’re just going to be a big team that’s going to work hard, and we’re expecting that.”

Maine does have bigger players, but it’s the tightness of the team that’s most encouraging to senior defenseman Conor Riley, an assistant captain. He said the veterans made it a point to bond with freshmen by taking a couple of boat trips together, going to movies and golf outings. The ultimate goal is to erase three straight losing seasons and to try to restore the program to the national prominence it enjoyed under Walsh, when the Black Bears won titles in 1993 and 1999.

“I think that motivates us and especially this year; when we’re leaving here we want to make sure (junior Cam Brown) and the classes behind them have a good reputation coming through for years to come,” Riley said.

Opening the season by hosting the Ice Breaker, facing Michigan State and North Dakota on back-to-back nights, is a great way to measure what’s within reach this season for the Black Bears, Brown said.

“We can see where we stand in the country and not just Hockey East,” he said. “It can definitely give us some confidence.”


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