For last year’s University of Maine men’s ice hockey team, conditioning was one of the team’s downfalls — especially early in the campaign.
UMaine was outscored 13-4 in the third period of its first 10 games, in which it went 1-8-1.
The team is determined not to repeat that this season.
UMaine is in the fourth week of a demanding six-week summer program on campus that includes at least eight workouts on the ice and off each week. Despite the on-campus program being optional for all players, every member of the team is participating — a rarity among Division I hockey programs — in hopes that it will save the team from a repeat of last year’s disastrous season.
“You can’t be trying to get into shape the first two months of the season when you’re playing some of the best teams in the country,” said UMaine head coach Ben Barr, now in his second year with the team.
A team’s conditioning “is not a variable a high-level Division I program should have to worry about,” he said.
The team does conditioning work in the weight room five mornings a week lasting an hour and a half. The players skate three days a week and do on-ice drills. The ice is available if they also want to skate on their own.
“To have everybody here three months before the season shows how much the guys care about what we’re trying to build here,” said Lynden Breen, a junior center for the Black Bears. “We all have one common goal: to become one of the best teams in college hockey.”
Their on-ice skill sessions are conducted by Maine Nordiques head coach and director of development Matt Pinchevsky and Nordiques general manager Eric Soltys, a former UMaine assistant, both longtime friends of UMaine head coach Ben Barr.
The Lewiston-based Nordiques play in the North American (Junior) Hockey League.
UMaine sports performance coach Codi Fitzgerald handles the team’s off-ice strength and conditioning program.
“Codi is unbelievable. He really takes it seriously and he caters a workout to each and every one of us. We’re lucky to have him,” Breen said.
Hockey is a game of short bursts. Fitzgerald’s workouts focus on explosiveness and strength and feature lower-body workouts that include sprints and one-legged drills. There is also a weight-lifting component for the upper body, which is critical in puck possession and puck protection.
On the ice, drills work on puck handling, shooting and skating, in addition to several drills involving one-on-one, two-on-two or three-on-three competitions.
Fitzgerald said the summer has gone well.
“We handed the guys a challenge at the end of the spring to come back in shape and they have exceeded expectations,” he said. “We’ve had a good first four weeks. To have everyone here speaks volumes to the culture Ben is setting up here.”
Barr said it is the first time in his coaching career that an entire team has worked out together in the summer. Under NCAA rules, Barr and his assistants aren’t allowed to work with players during the summer.
He previously coached at his alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, as well as at Union College, Providence College, Western Michigan and UMass.
“This is the most important thing we’ve done so far. It is a huge positive,” said Barr, whose Black Bears went 7-22-4 last season and finished last in Hockey East with a 5-17-2 record.
The fact that every player is participating is a “huge step for us. We are also getting a good head start on building our culture and chemistry,” Breen said. “Nobody is going to outwork us this season.”
It’s a big shift compared with last summer, which was a difficult one for the team.
The Black Bears’ then-head coach, Red Gendron, collapsed and died while playing golf at the Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono on April 9, 2021. Barr was named to replace Gendron on May 12 that year.
Previously, the norm had always been for the incoming freshmen to arrive on campus in early August and take a class to get acclimated to the school and the community. Barr implemented a workout regimen for the players to follow at home until they returned to campus.
But when they workout at home on their own or with friends, there is no way to gauge how much time and effort each player puts into the training regimen, Barr said. Some worked out harder and more diligently than others.
“This takes the unknown out of everything because they are working out together. You push yourself more when you are around your teammates and peers.” Barr said.
The 12 returning players began working out a week after last season ended. There are 15 rookies on the team this year.
Senior left wing Ben Poisson anticipates the team getting off to a better start this season because of their conditioning.
“We’re taking steps to make sure we will be the best-conditioned team out there,” he said.
If players aren’t in tip-top shape, they are more prone to making mental mistakes leading to physical miscues, said defenseman Jakob Sirota, who will be a graduate student.
“If we want to be able to compete at a high level, it is a necessity to have guys here early,” Sirota said.
Sirota was having an outstanding year until he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He had season-ending surgery in February.
He isn’t 100 percent yet but he admitted he has been “surprised” at how well the knee has been feeling and has begun skating.
The Black Bears will have their initial workout with their coaches on the first day of school on Monday, Aug. 29.
They will open the season with an exhibition game against the University of Prince Edward Island on Saturday, Oct. 1 at the Alfond Arena before traveling to Colorado for regular season games against the Air Force Academy and defending national champion Denver on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, respectively, as part of the Ice Breaker Tournament.