ORONO — Conor Riley sits out a hockey game about as often as he sits in a barber’s chair.

The Maine senior has done neither this year. And this weekend is likely your final chance to admire his old-fashioned work ethic – or his free-flowing hair – at Alfond Arena.

“It got to a point where I wanted to cut it, but since I’ve waited this long I might as well finish it out,” Riley said of his coiffure, destined to end up as a “Locks of Love” donation. “I’ve got a few more inches to go.”

Black Bears captain Steven Swavely is happy to let you in on a grooming secret regarding Riley, his tough-guy roommate for the past three years.

“He just showers and throws the hat on,” Swavely said with a laugh. “He puts it up in the man bun sometimes, but other than that he doesn’t have to do too much to it.”

Underneath all that hair is a hockey player who learned to give up dreams of stardom to do what’s best for his team.

No pair of Black Bears have appeared in more games than Swavely (140) and Riley (139) these past four years. The home portion of those careers will end with a Friday-Saturday series against Merrimack – unless Maine somehow rises from 11th place in Hockey East to eighth or higher, which would earn it a playoff series at Alfond Arena in two weeks.

For Riley, a rugged 6-foot, 185-pounder from Massena, New York, it’s a career that is coming full circle. He played center until his senior year of high school, then switched to defenseman after injuries ravaged the blue line at Albany Academy. He was still playing that position for the Valley Junior Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League when then-Maine coach Tim Whitehead offered him a scholarship after an All-Star game appearance.

Riley scored 37 points as a defenseman with the Warriors, but Whitehead told him he’d have a better chance of playing forward as a freshman at Maine. Happy to oblige, Riley’s first shift came alongside the Swavely brothers (Jon and Steven), and resulted in a Steven Swavely goal against Quinnipiac. But soon Riley was needed back on defense, where he remained for three seasons until last weekend, when current coach Red Gendron threw him back on a forward line against Notre Dame.

It’s all the same to Riley, known for his speed as a defenseman.

“At every level you’ve got to change your game and coming here, I wasn’t going to be that flashy player that you talk about. It was more of, ‘Just make sure you’re doing everything you can to help the team and stay in the lineup,’ ” Riley said.

“There’s no way to really prepare for it, I guess. Freshman year you come in and you think you’re going to do what you did in juniors, and you don’t really know the difference between levels. It’s crazy that there might be one, 11/2 or two lines that are good in juniors, and then you come to college and you’ve got guys who were on the top line up in the stands watching. You’ve just got to realize that there’s a lot of talent out there and they’re grabbing the best from everywhere. It takes a bit of a transition. I think some guys never really make that transition and that’s what ends up hurting them.”

Riley had six assists but no goals in his first two seasons, but was named the team’s top defensive player as a sophomore after tying for the Black Bears’ lead with a plus-13 rating and blocking 25 shots. He has four goals and 11 assists in his final two seasons.

All the while he missed only five games – four after suffering a concussion as a freshman, and one with a shoulder injury last year that necessitated postseason surgery.

“He’s a consummate competitor,” said Gendron, in his third season as Riley’s coach. “He has great speed and when you combine that with his grit, his physicality, that’s what makes him the player he is.”

Riley is one of the three alternate captains in another trying season for Maine (7-19-6). The seniors – who also include alternate captain Will Merchant – are still hopeful of going on a playoff run.

Swavely, whose mother Susan will again sing the national anthem before Saturday’s home finale, is expecting it to be an emotional farewell to the Alfond.

But he’s thankful for his time playing alongside Riley, at whatever position.

“He’s not your typical defenseman. He likes to Bobby Orr it up the ice,” Swavely said. “It’s fun to watch.”

Both players are hopeful that a professional hockey career awaits. Before that, Riley is hoping for one more hair-raising moment in his home arena of four years.

“It just amazes me every time you wait on that goal line for the starting lineups, you look around and that amount of support that the fans give is something that has made playing here so special,” he said. “And that’s something that I hope will never change.”

Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MarkEmmertPPH

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