A Weekend Away with the Black Bears

photo 3As just about everyone in Fill The Steins Nation knows by now, the UMaine Black Bears hockey team split last weekend’s series with the UNH Wildcats.  The “home-and-home” series was technically a “road-and-road” for both teams, as they looked to appeal beyond their immediate geographies, and draw fans to the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester on Friday night (a 5-2 comeback win for the good guys) and a Saturday evening tilt at Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena (a payback game for UNH, as they reeled off four third period goals to win 7-4).  From where I sit, these types of quasi-road games are great ways to drum up interest in the programs and the rivalry (if any more fuel needs to be added to the UMaine-UNH rivalry, anyhow…) – they serve to showcase the teams to different fans, like yours truly, who might be challenged to make it up to Orono from southern Maine on a Friday or Saturday night.

The weekend was brimming with Big Blue pride, between the game in Portland on Saturday and the pre-game events held by the UM Alumni Association and the Black Bears of Portland (FTS represented at both, I’ll have you know).  Portland was painted Big Blue for the night, and though the result wasn’t what we’d all hoped for, the Black Bears weren’t done yet.

On their way back to Orono, the hockey team made a pit stop about ten minutes north of the city at the Falmouth Family Ice Center.  The Arena typically has public skating throughout the week, and weekends usually find the ice packed with skaters of all levels.  (This is the part where I admit, despite growing up for 22+ years in Maine, that I’ve never learned to skate.  This was only my fourth time on skates, period.  OK.  The truth feels good.  I’m glad that’s out there.)  But your average ice time at the FFIC almost never includes face time with some of the best hockey talent around.

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But there they were – giving tips on skating and puck handling to kids, signing autographs for some of Maine’s youngest hockey players, and getting in a little showmanship, as they kicked up some ice spray on quick-stops.  Kids in their replica blue Maine jerseys blended in with the real-deal Black Bears (Devin Shore, decked out for the season in a Santa hat!), and Head Coach Red Gendron chatted with the parents and pee-wee coaches.  This was a fun time for the players and their fans alike.  (Selfishly speaking, my own kiddo got on skates for the first time ever and had a blast – I think we’ll be seeing much more of the Falmouth Family Ice Center, despite my ankles’ pleas otherwise…)

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But it was also business, make no mistake.  As Athletic Director Karlton Creech and Coach Gendron have said themselves, the University and its hockey team depend on interest and financial support from ticket holders, donors, and corporate sponsors – and many of those things are based in, or at least have ties to, southern Maine.  (20,000 alums in southern Maine?!?  I’d say there’s value, there.)  Getting in some glad-handing with those interests is necessary, serious business for a program with sights on greater success; it’s no wonder that it was all-hands-on-deck this weekend, not just for Coach Red and the gang, but also for President Susan Hunter, AD Creech, and Associate Director of Athletic Development Seth Woodcock, among others.  And there’s more: Coach Bob Walsh’s men’s hoops team will be in Portland in January 7 to play Vermont.  The Hockey team will be back in October.  It’s easy to imagine that women’s basketball, baseball, and others will be back, too.

From FTS’s point of view, it’s a great thing to do, and we’d love to see more of it – and if it happens to recruit some worthy home-grown talent to the team, all the better.  Despite the loss of a home game for Orono/Bangor here and there, this is a positive step for UMaine Athletics.  More fans and more support is more money; it’s also not inconceivable that southern Maine fans could travel to New Hampshire or Massachusetts to cheer on UMaine in hostile territory.  There’s plenty of love for the Black Bears to go around.  Orono will always be home to the Black Bears, but southern Maine is proud to be their home-away-from-home.  Come back anytime!

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