Fifteen years ago this month, Blake James and his compadres at the University of Maine massively disrespected Stephen and Tabitha King by yanking Black Bear broadcasting rights from locally owned WZON radio (620 AM).
UMaine men’s hockey may still be paying the price for it to this day.
I’ve said it dozens of times: it’s not necessarily what they did. It’s how they did it. I mean you’d have to be some of the dumbest or most brazen people alive to blatantly insult your most famous graduates and generous donors by not even giving them the courtesy of a heads up that the move was coming.
But Blake and the boys had Learfield dollar signs in their eyes and in March 2007 essentially told Bananas T. Bear to put the middle fingers on each of his paws right up in the air at their most well-known alumni.
I worked at WZON at the time as the afternoon show host and play-by-play voice of UMaine women’s basketball. I also did a few men’s hoops games and baseball and softball, too.
I will tell you Dale Duff, General Manager Bobby Russell and everyone at Zone Corp never thought this would happen.
One morning we got the news. After a decade of broadcasting hundreds of UMaine games, the plug was being pulled.
Even back then, while I was sore that I had broadcast my last game, anyone could look at the contract and see that it was a good deal for UMaine. It was guaranteed cash they never had before, which was important for a cash-strapped athletic department.
So after not even consulting the Kings, or having the common decency to at least provide a courteous heads up about the decision in advance, Learfield hijacked the award-winning broadcast team Duff developed and continues to own UMaine athletics broadcasting rights to this day.
Money isn’t everything, as one of the most famous writers on the planet pointed out shortly after the decision.
“Tabby and I are very disappointed with the University’s decision to move its sports broadcasting rights to Clear Channel, a company which is based far from the college it will be serving. We understand that monetary considerations were a prime consideration, but feel the Athletic Department in particular and the University in general may not understand that making money the prime consideration in any dealing is usually short-sighted. My wife and I feel that may prove to be the case here; we feel that what UM Athletics has gained for their programs may be offset by a loss in the area of community relations.”
Blake James, former UMaine President Robert Kennedy and others took a public beatdown for months after the announcement.
Looking back at it, even in 2022, the folks in Orono couldn’t have handled this any more poorly if they had driven up to the King mansion on West Broadway and started a book burning of King novels.
But perhaps The Master of Horror is getting the last laugh and a little revenge in true “Carrie” style.
Prior to the snub from the athletic department, UMaine men’s hockey had been to the NCAA tourney seven years in a row. Since their last appearance in March 2007, around the time of this controversy, they have only been back one time.
There’s more. Since the move, you can add up zero Hockey East regular-season titles and zero conference tourney titles for the Black Bear skaters. In fact, the men’s hockey team has posted only four winning seasons in the 15 years and has a miserable record of 195-263-43 since making the move to Learfield. All of this after being one of the most successful programs in the country for years and years.
The program has turned into a true horror story. Is it the King Curse? The Hockey Hex? Maybe so.
Publicly, the always gracious Kings took the high road and forgave the folks in Orono. But perhaps in some dark corner of the mansion in Bangor, behind that black iron fence, there’s a little Bananas stuffed animal with some Voodoo pins still stuck in the middle fingers of those paws.
Cue the horror music as the hockey hex lives on.
Jeff Solari is the founder of the Maine Sports Chowdah, Maine’s only free weekly sports email newsletter. He has been in sports media since he was 17 and is not shy with his opinions or perspective on the world of sports. The longtime sports broadcaster is a graduate of Mount Desert Island High School and the University of Southern Maine. Previous gigs included WLBZ-TV and WCSH-TV, host of “The Shootaround” talk radio show on WZON and stints with “Downtown” and “The Drive.” Solari has won more than 15 Maine Association of Broadcasters and AP broadcaster awards.