Maine focus of college hockey with nation's top-ranked team

Even by taciturn Down East standards it was a snowstorm worth talking about. Nearly two feet of the pillowy white stuff would pile up before it ended. This was a quiet holiday weekend in a small college town far above the tony summer resort of Kennebunkport, above the state capital of Augusta, above the L.L. Bean store in Freeport that never closes. Orono, if you look to your left on a map of the hemisphere, is on about the same latitude as Montreal.

You haven't made a road trip in college hockey until you've ridden a bus up here to play the University of Maine, as a struggling Yale team just had. In the parking lot of Alfond Arena the bus skidded on the snow and knocked over part of a fence.

The night was made for staying home and reading E.B. White in front of a fire. Unless you're a Maine hockey fan, that is.

Modern Alfond Arena seats 4,100 people, if nobody breathes deeply. More than 4,300 crowded in for the Yale game.

In a semi-secluded state, the Black Bear hockey team has been the main attraction all through the long Maine winter. Home games are a regional happening, tickets virtually impossible to find.

The team is ranked first nationally in Division I college hockey with an overall record of 29-6-2 - the first time any University of Maine team has ever been No. 1 in any sport. The Bears clinched the championship in the Hockey East conference, a collection of top regional powers along the lines of basketball's mighty Big East, weeks before the regular season ended. Indeed, the best game of the Hockey East opening playoff round, in which Maine drew a bye, may have been the Bears' intrasquad contest between their American and Canadian players.

Maine begins its actual playoff action tonight at home against Providence, and the Bears are favored to advance to the championship round at Boston Garden, then eventually to the NCAA finals the end of the month at Lake Placid, N.Y..

The traditional college hockey kingpins from the upper Midwest and the Boston area have had to make room for upstate Maine, and the man behind the amazing progress is coach Shawn Walsh, an ex-Michigan State assistant.

When the 32-year-old Walsh arrived four years ago, the Black Bears were in what seemed to be permanent hibernation. Their record for the previous five seasons was a woeful 33-73-1.

Walsh's first priority was more intensive recruiting. He literally went to the other end of the continent to establish a British Columbia connection. The Maine roster lists seven British Columbia players.

``No schools out there play college hockey,'' says Walsh. ``If there are good kids left over anywhere, it'll be in British Columbia.''

Walsh, a former Bowling Green State University goaltender, sells noisy Alfond Arena and the attractive, spacious campus to visiting recruits.

``We are supported by great hard-core hockey fans up here,'' he says. ``When you get them roaring and the band fires up, the atmosphere is electric. And the locker rooms and the training facilities are the best. It's a special place to be a hockey player.''''

The enthusiastic coach has thus turned a potential disadvantage - the school's remote location - into a selling point.

``We emphasize to kids that this is a major-college opportunity in a small-college atmosphere. It's a place with very few distractions, where a young person can get the most out of college both athletically and academically. It's the same kind of atmosphere that has made Penn State football so strong.''

On the ice, his team features carefully conceived balance; balanced scoring and balance between offense and defense.

``Flat-out speed up front is terribly important to me,'' Walsh says. ``And I like big defensemen with a lot of reach who won't wear down playing a heavy schedule.''

Maine's top scorer is David Capuano, who led Hockey East with 59 points in 26 games and had 75 points overall. He's a 190-lb. sophomore who switched from center to right wing this year and was dynamite on the power play. He and his brother, Jack, a defenseman, are from Cranston, R.I.

Captain Mike Golden, a senior center from Reading, Mass., scored 67 points during the regular season. Both he and Dave Capuano, who play on different lines, are among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award that goes to college hockey's player of the year.

If Maine needed a late lift this month - and there's little evidence it did - it got one when junior defenseman Eric Weinrich returned from the US Olympic squad. If the Bears have a relative weakness it is on defense, where Weinrich immediately asserted himself.

It's a long road from Orono to the national championship, even in clear weather, but the Bears look ready for it.

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