University of Maine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron watches the action during a game last season at Alfond Arena in Orono. Photo provided by UMaine athletics

The University of Maine men’s ice hockey team hasn’t played a game in nine months. The Black Bears had their first six games of this season postponed because of coronavirus safety concerns, and there’s a chance they may not play a home game in Orono the entire season.

But they have games this weekend, and for that the Black Bears are thankful.

“Everybody’s elated. We were sitting here in the office (Tuesday) afternoon when the word finally came down. (Athletic Director) Ken Ralph let us know we were going to play and I must admit, Coach Red had a little extra exuberance. There may have been a few colorful words going on. It was pure joy,” said UMaine men’s ice hockey coach Red Gendron said while speaking with media via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon.

“Obviously, they were ecstatic,” Gendron added of his team’s reaction to the news that they can play against the University of New Hampshire this weekend. “As the day wore on (Tuesday), I think they were quite nervous. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for our players. There was a huge sense of relief we were finally cleared to play. We ended up practicing (Tuesday) night instead of the morning in the hopes we would get the go ahead. I think the players were emotionally spent by the time we got on the ice and got rolling last night.”

UMaine announced Tuesday that President Joan Ferrini-Munday gave the school’s winter sports programs the go-ahead to resume the season, which was paused on Nov. 24 due to positive COVID-19 test results on campus.

So far, the women’s ice hockey team is the only UMaine winter sports team to compete this season — the Black Bears split a pair of games at Holy Cross last month. The women’s basketball team will travel to Rhode Island this weekend to take on Providence and the University of Rhode Island, while the men’s basketball team will open the following weekend with a pair of games at the University of Hartford.

The men’s hockey games at UNH are set to begin at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Originally scheduled as home games for the Black Bears, the games were moved from Alfond Arena in Orono to UNH’s Whittemore Center. According to University of Maine spokesperson Dan Demerritt, the current COVID-19 safety guidelines prohibit the school from hosting an indoor event of more than 50 people. Two hockey teams, along with game-day support staff, would exceed 50 people.

Gendron said the Black Bears aren’t concerned about the prospects of playing some — if not all — of the season on the road.

University of Maine senior forward Kevin Hock skates while wearing a mask during a Sept. 22 practice in Orono. Photo provided by UMaine athletics

“My personal view is, I’d much rather play at the Alfond, but what’s a much stronger view is, I just want to play. That feeling’s stronger than where it is and whether or not it’s a league game, and whether or not it’s supposed to be our home game and are we going to wear white and are we going to be considered the home team for last change and everything else,” Gendron said. “All of those things are in fact important, it’s not to minimize that. Right now, let’s start with playing hockey and just rejoice in that.

“I’m fired up. We’ll worry about the details later.”

The Black Bears had two-game series against UMass, UConn and Merrimack postponed. This weekend’s series against the Wildcats also is the first of the season for UNH, which had four games postponed. Other Hockey East teams, including Boston College, UMass and Providence, have already played some games.

“I think you’re going to have two teams extraordinarily excited to play. It’s a “Forest Gump” problem. Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” Gendron said.

For Gendron, the focus can now go from keeping his team engaged in practice after practice to game situations. One of the biggest issues facing the Black Bears is replacing goalie Jeremy Swayman, who signed with the Boston Bruins after winning the Mike Ritcher Award as the nation’s top goaltender and also was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey’s top player.

Maine has three goaltenders: Sophomore Matthew Thiessen and freshmen Victor Östman and Connor Androlewicz. It’s an inexperienced group, with Thiessen seeing just seven minutes of game action last season. Gendron said he’ll likely bring two goalies to UNH this weekend. He declined to name a starter.

“They’ve all been real good in practice. They all have size. They all have athletic ability. They all have a very high compete level. My personal opinion is, all three of them could win us a game any night. If I put any one of the three of them in the net, I will feel confident we have a chance to win,” Gendron said.

University of Maine freshman goalie Victor Ostman skates during a Sept. 22 practice in Orono. Photo provided by UMaine athletics

Crowd noise, typically a large part of the atmosphere in any game between Maine and UNH no matter the location, will not be a factor this weekend.

“I think for the players, it’s certainly helpful when things aren’t going well. It feels good to know you have 5,000 faithful behind you. But it doesn’t make a play. It doesn’t throw a check. It doesn’t score a goal,” Gendron said. “The pucks and the sticks don’t know there aren’t any fans in the building. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, As a player you can feed on the energy of the crowd. There’s absolutely no question about that. But it’s not there.”

A quieter arena doesn’t matter to a team that hasn’t played a game since early March, Gendron said. To Genrdon, knowing there’s games to prepare for gives a sense of control that’s been lacking throughout the entire pandemic.

“One of the struggles for me personally is the feeling of impotence in trying to impact the situation. People say all the time, disease does what it’s going to do and you can’t control its behavior. That is antithetical to who any coach is,” Gendron said. “You’re used to, if not controlling situations, at the least feeling like you can influence situations. You feel a responsibility to your players, your fans, your university. When you’re feeling like you’re powerless to impact the situation, for me at least it’s very challenging.”

There are finally games to prepare for. That’s a challenge Gendron welcomes.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

 

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