ORONO, Maine — Jakub Sirota has a tall task this season for the University of Maine men’s hockey team.
Not only is the graduate student defenseman the most experienced returning UMaine player, with 94 career games under his belt, he is the captain of a team with 16 newcomers, including 11 freshmen and five transfers.
Five of those freshmen are defensemen, and there are two sophomores on the blue line.
“Obviously, he is really important to us on the ice, but he is even more important to us as a leader,” said UMaine second-year head coach Ben Barr.
“When we found out he was coming back, we were so excited,” said sophomore defenseman David Breazeale, an assistant captain along with Lynden Breen and Ben Poisso. “He has so much knowledge of the team and college hockey, and with all these young guys coming in, he plays such a crucial part.
“He is a phenomenal leader,” Breazeale added. “He leads by example. He does all the right things. He is a steady presence in the locker room and we need that. He understands the program and what the coaches expect out of us.”
“He has been huge for us,” said freshman defenseman Brandon Holt. “He is kind of like the role model for everything we do away from the rink, on the ice and in the gym. He is always there pushing us to be better. He is almost like a coach, and he is a really good teammate as well.”
Freshman Luke Antonacci was paired up with Sirota in UMaine’s 1-0 exhibition win over the University of Prince Edward Island and called him a “great mentor.”
Sirota, whose season was cut short a year ago by an injury to his right knee that required surgery, said the newcomers have made his job easier through their work ethic, self-motivation and talent level.
“They’re stepping right in with the older guys. When you don’t have a lot of experience, it can be tough sometimes because you’re afraid to make plays. You don’t have the confidence. But we’re excited to see them make the plays they can make. It’s awesome to see such young guys have good confidence,” said Sirota.
He noted that they had more size on defense on previous teams, “but the speed wasn’t there at times. I’m happy we have more speed now. That can be a strong weapon for us.”
The 23-year-old Sirota, a native of Kromeriz in the Czech Republic, joined UMaine’s program for the second semester during the 2018-19 season.
He was an assistant captain last season and was having an outstanding campaign with four goals and 10 assists in 26 games before sustaining the knee injury.
In his 94 career games, the smooth-skating Sirota has seven goals and 32 assists.
Sirota said his knee isn’t quite 100 percent yet, but it is very close and is “getting better every day.” He played well in the exhibition game and outlined what he expects from himself this season.
“I’m hoping to get better in all areas,” said Sirota. “I want to be consistent on a day-to-day basis and help the team earn points in every game and get us to where we want to be.
“Our goal is to finish in the top four in Hockey East so we can be host in the playoffs,” he added. “We have the potential to do it.”
Sirota said Barr has played an important role in his development.
“He brings so much to the table. He holds every guy accountable for their development. I’m fortunate in that he pushes me every day,” said Sirota.
He pointed out that it isn’t always easy for older, experienced players to see where they can improve, “but coach Barr and the coaches make sure the older guys are getting better day by day.”
“He is very smart with the puck,” Barr said of Sirota. “He isn’t afraid to make a breakout pass in front of our net. He sees the game really well and he’s able to slow the game down. He is working on his quickness and his shot. He knows he needs to if he wants to play at the next (pro) level for a long time. He is really honest with himself.”
“He is really fun to watch,” said Holt. “Some of the things he does maybe I will be able to do in the future.”
Freshman center Killian Kiecker-Olson said “everybody looks up to him.
“You watch him and you want to model some of the things he does to get your game to the level he has brought his to as a player and as a leader,” said Kiecker-Olson.
UMaine opens its season in the Ice Breaker Tournament in Colorado this weekend.
UMaine will take on the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs at 9 p.m. Friday and defending national champ Denver at 8 p.m. Saturday in Denver.