October 1, 2010

Grin and Bear it: Maine is back

Gustav Nyquist (photo: Getty)

BOSTON -- Well, look who’s back.

Just three years ago, Maine finished ninth in Hockey East, the program’s worst finish since the league expanded beyond eight teams and the first time the Black Bears missed the playoffs since NCAA violations banished them from the postseason in the mid-1990s.

But Maine, one of college hockey’s most storied programs, bounced back from finishing ninth in 2008 (and the eighth-place finish in 2009), to earn a tie for third at the end of the 2009-10 regular season, and made a run to the Hockey East final, where it lost a thrilling 7-6 overtime affair against Boston College.

Wednesday at Hockey East’s annual media day, the league’s coaches in their preseason poll judged the Black Bears to be the second-best team in the conference, effectively the No. 1 challenger to defending champion BC.

It would be shortsighted and foolhardy to say the Black Bears’ rise is complete, that one coaches poll is the final plank in the S.S. Redemption for Maine, but it’s an obvious sign that the program that was once one of the nation’s perennial best has returned from the doldrums it so briefly experienced a few years ago.

If it wasn’t a meteoric rise, it was certainly one of the quickest shots from the bottom to the top that the league’s seen in quite a while. But it wasn’t a surprise to most who are familiar with the league, as Maine is the type of program that never seems to be on the skids for very long.

“No, it’s not a surprise that there are fluctuations, given the league and everything,” Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) said Wednesday at the Garden. “I think it’s important that they’re back. Certain programs are important to certain leagues – Cornell is important to the ECAC (and) it’s important that RPI is good for the ECAC. I think Maine being good is really good for us, its history, the experience of going to a game at Alfond, all that stuff.

“So now that it’s safe to say that they’re back, and (junior forward Gustav) Nyquist is such an exciting player, there’s a buzz. It might translate into people wanting to come to Boston in March. I think it’s one of those flagship programs, and it’s good for us that they’re back where they seem to be.”

To get out of the hole they were in, the Black Bears needed to be patient and, above all, needed to follow the lead of coach Tim Whitehead, who’s entering his 10th season behind the Maine bench. Whitehead inherited the team from Shawn Walsh, one of the league’s legendary names, and although he took the Black Bears to the NCAA tournament in each of the first six years after Walsh died of cancer, Bertagna intimated that he was still behind the 8-ball in Orono.

“Somebody made the comment to me once that people up there that were waiting for him to fail, just because he wasn’t Shawn, he didn’t have the personality, he wasn’t larger than life,” Bertagna said.

Those naysayers eventually got their wish as Walsh’s fingerprints started to fade from the program. And the dropoff was sharp – Maine’s two losing seasons in 2007-08 and 2008-09 came right after a trip to the national tournament.

But Whitehead held firm, and even as some who followed the team started calling for his head, he held a steady course that now finds Maine right back in the thick of things.

“We didn’t want to sacrifice anything to get there,” he said Wednesday. “We had to make some tough decisions with cuts from the team, but we felt it was the right thing to do. It might have surprised some of the fans, and maybe it would have helped in the short run to have those guys around, but having said that, we knew where we want to go, and how long it would take.

“We think we’re on pace, and now the challenge is can we sustain it and have a season like we did in the ‘90s and the 2000s. We feel we’re in a position to succeed.”

Last year featured one of those tough decisions, and in the final analysis it would be hard to argue that Whitehead and his staff chose poorly when they opted to take starting goaltender Scott Darling out of the picture – first for two games at the start of the season, then indefinitely on the eve of the playoffs – for disciplinary reasons. Darling, who was dismissed for good after the 2009-10 season, was replaced ably by Dave Wilson, a senior who had battled with discipline problems of his own after an arrest the year before.

The fact that the tough decisions like that one have worked out over the last year or so is a valuable chip in Whitehead’s stack, something that gives him that much more clout and cachet as he molds Maine to his own vision, not just a version of the one created by his predecessor.

“It’s good to feel like we did it the right way; we didn’t make short term decisions that might have benefited us for a few weekends along the road there,” he said. “That said, we have so much more work to do, and so much farther to go. But I think that has helped with the discipline and focus of our team, they trust us, they know we’re in this for the right reasons, and we’re coaching it in a calm and consistent way.”

Every good team needs a go-to player and, following the script, the Black Bears have Nyquist, a Swedish import who, entering his junior season, has the inside track to being Hockey East’s best player, and perhaps the best in all of college hockey. Listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, he might be a shade bigger, and his game is certainly larger than life.

Nyquist led the league with 61 points in 39 games last year, eight better than league MVP Bobby Butler (Marlboro, Mass.). He did it with a scorer’s touch, finding the net 19 times to rank fourth in Hockey East, but he also dished out a league-high 42 assists.

What has Whitehead and plenty others in Orono smiling as fall’s opening face-offs loom is the very real prospect that this year, Nyquist could be even better.

“Gustav’s become a very complete player,” Whitehead said. “If the puck isn’t going in for him on a given night, he’s helping us in every way. He’s a guy I count on first and last minute of the game, regaining a lead, protecting a lead, he’s a guy, power play, penalty kill, any situation, I want him on the ice. He’s become a complete player, so he can contribute even when he’s not scoring.”

UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) credited Nyquist with having a big hand in Maine’s insurgence.

“The key was keeping the stud,” Cahoon said. “He’s one of the great players in the game, and where other programs have lost those kids, he decided to stay around. I think the situation at Merrimack with (sophomore Stephane) Da Costa is similar. It just elevates the whole level of potential for their team.”

Now in a leadership role, Nyquist says the team has always felt like the doldrums of 2007-09 weren’t going to be his and his teammates’ lasting legacy.

“I think inside of the team we’ve always felt we had the players and coaches to do this, and the support around the organization,” Nyquist said. “We’ve always known we can get this back in check, and we showed a lot of people that last year in our playoff run. We definitely felt like we proved something last year, and we’re a team to count on.”

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.