The University of Maine men’s hockey program isn’t where first-year athletic director Ken Ralph would like it to be.
A former perennial national championship contender with two NCAA titles, 11 Frozen Four appearances and 18 NCAA tournament appearances to its credit, UMaine hasn’t even reached the Hockey East semifinals in seven years.
Head coach Red Gendron, who recently completed his sixth season in Orono, has compiled a lackluster 82-115-25 record (0.426), including a 4-12 mark in league playoff games.
He was an assistant coach at UMaine when it won its first national championship in 1993 and said he understands the fans’ frustrations.
“It comes with the territory. I don’t have a problem with that. But we’re moving the needle forward,” he said of the program’s progress. “For some it’s not fast enough.”
[Jeff Solari: Does Red Gendron deserve a contract extension? Or to be fired?]
Gendron’s detractors point out the team has exhibited questionable player development during his tenure. Six of UMaine’s top nine returning forwards scored fewer goals this season than during 2017-2018 and the power play converted at only 14.9 percent despite having eight key contributors back on those units.
The Black Bears also have lacked scoring punch, due in part to the absence of elite level offensive players. Since Gendron took over prior to the 2013-2014 season, UMaine has produced only two forwards who have played in the NHL. But both Ryan Lomberg and Devin Shore were recruited by former head coach Tim Whitehead.
Ralph knows Black Bear fans are tired of mediocrity, but he said it’s unfair to place all the blame on Gendron.
“I’m not deaf to the fact people are screaming for change,” Ralph said. “There’s a pent-up demand to get to Boston [for the Hockey East semifinals]. But when I evaluate coaches, I always put things into context with how well they’re supported.’’
Alfond showing its age
Ralph said UMaine is not providing men’s hockey with all the necessary resources to facilitate its quest to again become a league contender, which includes being able to recruit top amateur players.
One of the issues is 43-year-old Alfond Arena which, according to both Ralph and Gendron, desperately needs an upgrade.
[UMaine men’s hockey coach looks to the future with 7 recruits]
Ralph said recruits usually visit the facility during the week when it is empty, rather than when it is buzzing with the game atmosphere provided by the fans, UMaine students and the pep band. Instead, they see a building with aging locker rooms and equipment rooms and an outdated scoreboard.
In 2011, Alfond Arena underwent a $4.85 million renovation that included a high-efficiency ice chiller system, upgraded seating and aisles in the lower bowl, a ducted dehumidifier system, an upgraded electrical system and generator, and new dasher boards and glass. Other areas were left untouched.
“There’s no question we need more locker room and weight room space and there needs to be an upgrade to the arena itself. We need to make it more attractive to recruits,” Gendron said.
Gendron’s detractors point out the arena was 30 years old when the team went to its last Frozen Four in 2007 and was even older when the Black Bears made their last NCAA tournament appearance in 2012.
‘We’re inches away’
One area of deficiency that is controllable, and is not tied to financial support or the facility, is on-ice discipline. UMaine was the eighth most penalized team in the country this season (13.7 minutes per game).
The Black Bears ranked fifth (15.1 mpg) during 2017-2018.
[Jeff Solari: No reason for Red Gendron to coach another game at UMaine]
Gendron, nonetheless, saw gains last winter.
“We beat the best team in our league [regular-season champion Massachusetts] this year and went 5-1 against Boston University and Boston College. When was the last time that happened?” Gendron asked, adding UMaine has been able to build depth through its recruiting efforts.
UMaine had a 21-20-7 Hockey East regular-season record the last two seasons after going 10-30-4 the previous two years. UMaine went 8-4-2 in its last 14 league regular-season games this season.
“We have taken huge steps the last two years in terms of our ability to compete at the top level in our league. We haven’t cracked the top level yet, but we know we’re inches away,” Gendron said.
It must be pointed out that UMaine also has the lowest-paid coaching staff and smallest recruiting budget among Hockey East programs, according to a league source. Gendron last March signed at two-year contract extension through June 30, 2021, that pays him $213,282.08 per year. Assistants Ben Guite and Alfie Michaud combine to earn $160,906.60.
A handful of Hockey East coaches earn more individually than the entire UMaine coaching staff. They include longtime Boston College coach Jerry York, who reportedly earns in excess of $1.2 million and Norm Bazin at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell takes home $465,000.
Division I parity yields hope
Despite the disparities, Ralph believes UMaine can return to prominence in hockey in part because there is considerable parity in Division I.
For the first time since 1970, perennial powers Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Boston College, Wisconsin and Boston University all failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. And 10 of the 16 teams in this year’s field have never won a national title.
American International College and the nation’s only independent team, Arizona State University, are first-time participants. Clarkson University, once a perennial power, earned its second straight tourney bid this season after going seven years without one.
[UMaine men’s hockey coach cracks down as team struggles with penalties]
“It’s not always a question of dollars and cents. You’re seeing more programs having a chance to succeed,” Ralph said.
Ralph conceded that while UMaine will never be able to compete with a program such as Minnesota or North Dakota from a financial standpoint, it can bounce back.
“We have a responsibility. We have to put certain elements back into the program to give this team a chance,” Ralph said. “We’re going to have to be creative about how we find it … People have high expectations for the hockey program at Maine, regardless of what our resources look like.”
He said UMaine’s loyal and vociferous fans and the pep band on game days are a valuable recruiting tool.
“Game day in a full building at Alfond Arena is as good as any arena in the country,” Ralph said.
Supporters back Gendron
Longtime UMaine hockey supporters Hayden Shaw, Bruce Pratt and Doug Damon, remain supportive of Gendron’s efforts under the circumstances.
“They don’t have the resources to dazzle a recruit,” Shaw said. “Red’s budget and the athletic budget is significantly less than the rest of Hockey East.”
Shaw said the recruiting landscape has changed and that players have many more options when it comes to finding a college program.
[UMaine men’s hockey team seeks to re-establish the advantage of playing on home ice]
“I like the way he coaches and the way the team plays. And they don’t get into trouble [off the ice],” said Damon, the father of former UMaine standout Derek Damon.
Sources close to the program say Gendron runs intense, highly productive practices, has been a valuable fundraiser and has re-established a connection with former players by sending them regular updates.
Upon being hired to replace Whitehead in 2013, Gendron spoke of re-establishing the glory days of the program. But that hasn’t happened.
It appears as though Gendron, perhaps with added program resources or facilities improvements, may have two more years to make good on his promise.