During his 18 seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Maine, Grant Standbrook played a pivotal role in the Black Bears’ two NCAA championships and 11 Frozen Four appearances. He was an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin when the Badgers claimed three NCAA titles.
But of all the teams he has been affiliated with, Standbrook said the 1998-99 Maine team that won the NCAA championship by beating the Boston College 2-1 in overtime in the semifinal and archrival New Hampshire 3-2 in overtime in the championship game in Anaheim, California, will always have a prominent place in his heart.
“It was a very special team,” said Standbrook, who will be on hand Friday night when the team is honored before the Maine-Boston University game at Alfond Arena in Orono. It is the 15th anniversary and 18 players and their families are expected to be on hand.
NCAA sanctions imposed on the hockey program on July 31, 1996 for a variety of violations resulted in the loss of 10 scholarships in increments over three seasons.
Head coach Shawn Walsh received a one-year suspension imposed by the school.
“It was the credit card team….thanks to their dads,” quipped Standbrook, the team’s recruiting coordinator who was able to land several players who played important roles on the championship team for very little or no money until the scholarships were reinstated.
“Every semester, my dad would be in [Walsh’s] office negotiating a better [scholarship] deal,” recalled Ben Guite, who was a junior center on that team and is now an assistant coach at Maine.
The players didn’t let their scholarship status impact their play.
“They refused to lose,” Standbrook said. “We won 31 games and the guys owned [the battles for] 50-50 pucks. They played with great determination and heart.
“And it was such a cohesive unit on and off the ice,” he added.
Guite went on to have a 13-year pro career after his four seasons at Maine and he said the 1998-99 team was the closest-knit team he has ever played on.
“There wasn’t another team that even came close to that team. The fact 17 to 18 players are coming back speaks to how close-knit we were,” he said.
Two others, Cory Larose and A.J. Begg, wanted to attend but can’t because Larose is ill and Begg’s wife is due to have a baby.
“We had a bunch of great people and because it was a small school and there weren’t a lot of outside activities that can pull a team apart, we did everything together off and on the ice,” said senior Marcus Gustafsson, who scored the overtime game-winner in the championship game. “We spent so much time together that we developed great friendships. So when we played, we didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Gustafsson added that the coaching staff, including Nate Leaman and Gene Reilly in addition to Walsh and Standbrook, did a thorough job instilling the importance of chemistry and “making everyone accountable” for their performance.
“We had that underdog mentality,” said Dan Kerluke, a sophomore winger on that team who eventually became an assistant coach at Maine. “Coach Walsh had a saying on his desk. It went, ‘If you don’t have to have the best of everything, you have to make the best of everything you have.’
“We didn’t have the best talent out there. BC and New Hampshire had more talent than we did. But we had more resolve,” Guite said.
Everybody on our team executed their roles very well, according to Leaman, who is now the head coach at Providence College.
“And we had such good leaders like [Steve] Kariya and [David] Cullen. They made sure everybody was focused and ready,” he added.
“It was like walking into a pro environment. Our leaders were so mature,” Peter Metcalf said.
“We had to play hard together and for each other,” said center Steve Kariya, who led the team in scoring that season with 27 goals and 38 assists for 65 points.
Boston University transfer Brendan Walsh said the NCAA sanctions had taken a toll on the program “so it took a special kid to make a commitment to Maine and it bonded us. It was guys who reallywanted to be there. It was the Land of the Broken Toys. The guys really had to persevere.”
That contributed to the chemistry and determination and Walsh also credited the coaching staff, especially Shawn Walsh, who died of cancer in 2001.
“I’ve played for a lot of great coaches. But no college coach could have ever done what Shawn did that season with our group of players and the NCAA sanctions,” Brendan Walsh said.
The sanctions, which included preventing the team from playing in the ‘95-96 and ‘96-97 postseasons served as motivation, according to Kariya.
“We took it upon ourselves to bring the program back. It was something we were very proud of,” he said.
Kariya said Walsh and Standbrook talked to him and the other captains (Cullen, Bobby Stewart and Jason Vitorino) about making the “new guys as comfortable as possible” because they were going to need them.
“It really paid off because the guys really emerged and developed much quicker than you would have expected,” Kariya said.
Freshmen Peter Metcalf and Doug Janik became dependable fixtures on the blue line who chipped in 23 and 16 points respectively and hard-nosed Barrett Heisten emerged as one of the team’s top power forwards while Niko Dimitrakos proved to be a dynamic playmaker whose rink-length rush and pass set up Stewart’s game-winner against Boston College. Heisten and Dimitrakos combined for 55 points.
Dimitrakos had goals in three consecutive NCAA Tournament games, including BC and UNH.
Mike Morrison backed up starting goalie Alfie Michaud and appeared in 11 games and Augusta’s Eric Turgeon, a defenseman, played in 12. Forward Ed Wood had 10 points in 21 games.
The Black Bears were a model of consistency.
They finished 31-6-4 and their longest losing streak was one two-game skein when they were swept by New Hampshire in the last regular season series, giving the Wildcats the Hockey East regular season title.
The team had to be resilient and overcome adversity in addition to the lingering sanctions. The coaching staff also had to make adjustments.
A.J. Begg and Anders Lundback, who were forwards the previous year, were converted to defense and had impressive seasons.
“A.J. told me he didn’t know if he could skate backwards [well enough],” Standbrook said. “I told him that within a week, I would not only having him skating backwards but he would be able to skate backwards laterally. He became a stalwart defenseman.”
Equipment manager Richard Britt died in a home accident on Feb. 23, 1999, so the team dedicated the season to him.
Walsh, a center, blew out his knee in the semifinal win over BC and the Black Bears had a Kerluke goal that would have given them a 3-0 lead over UNH waved off because Vitorino’s skate was in the crease. UNH eventually tied the game before Gustafsson converted his own rebound off a Larose pass in overtime.
Michaud was the tourney MVP after making 81 saves in the wins over BC and New Hampshire. He had 40 in the 4-2 and 7-2 NCAA victories over Ohio State and Clarkson that earned Maine a spot in the Frozen Four.
The players have followed different paths since they hung up their skates.
Guite, Cullen, Dimitrakos, Heisten, Michaud, Kariya, Morrison, Janik and Larose all played in the NHL.
Janik is still playing pro hockey in Italy and Matthias Trattnig is doing likewise in his native Austria. Dimitrakos was lacing up his skates in Finland last season. Michaud is the goalie coach for the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates while also assisting the Portland Junior Pirates.
Stewart is a retail strategist based in Toronto and Hong Kong, Vitorino is in commercial real estate in Dallas, Kariya is scouting for the New Jersey Devils, Metcalf lives in Scarborough and works in wealth management and financial planning, and Gustafson has his own wealth management firm in Atlanta.
Walsh is on the Boston police force, Kerluke is the CEO and co-founder of his own Double Blue Sports Analytics company and lives in Hermon, and Heisten is back in his native Anchorage, Alaska, where he is the coaching director for youth hockey and a volunteer assistant at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
Begg is a firefighter, Jimmy Leger and Larose are in sales, Turgeon is an engineer and Cullen is a teacher.
Fans are invited to meet the players in the Alfond Family Lounge after Friday night’s game.