Bullish on The Bears

Stirring a state whose teams are unaccustomed to such lofty heights, Maine is No. 1 in all college hockey
January 25, 1988

Outside Alfond Arena in tiny Orono, Maine, the only signs of life this afternoon are the smell of burning firewood in the chill air and the occasional sight of a student hurrying to class across a campus parking lot. But inside things are humming as the University of Maine hockey team settles in for another of its periodic group therapy sessions.

When the players have settled down and taken their places in the plush new locker room, Shawn Walsh, the Black Bears' 32-year-old coach, opens the gathering by confessing his own sins committed during Maine's 4-1 win over U.S. International the previous night. Among other errors Walsh surprisingly concedes that he was too harsh with a player who had unnecessarily iced the puck late in the game. Emboldened by their coach's honesty, some players forthrightly own up to their mistakes. One allows that he took a stupid penalty because he overreacted to a shove from an opponent; another confesses to making nasty comments to a teammate on the power play; a third admits that he hadn't paid enough attention when planning his academic schedule at the start of the semester and as a result had to miss half the game to take a final exam. By now the penitents are falling all over themselves to confess. Father Shawn happily grants absolution and the team is ready to start preparing for its next opponent. Alan Alda would love it; Woody Hayes would have been ill.

The scene epitomizes the introspection and Three Musketeers' togetherness that have helped the Black Bears achieve their impressive 19-4-2 record this season and No. 1 ranking in NCAA Division I, the first time a University of Maine team has been rated best in the land. Though the team had dropped to No. 2 behind Minnesota after a Jan. 4 loss to unranked North Dakota, Maine regained the top spot last weekend with a convincing 6-4 win over the Gophers.

Certainly you won't find much grumbling about Walsh's tactics around Orono. And who can quarrel with a man who in four years has turned around a program that had a dismal Division I record of 33-73-1 in the five seasons before his arrival? He has built a real winner, advancing to the quarterfinals of the NCAA playoffs last year in just his third season.

What ought to particularly please the Maine faithful is that Walsh has achieved this success while actually improving the team's record in the classroom, an accomplishment attributable to still more unusual tactics. All freshmen are required to attend a study hall three to four times per week, as is any other player whose grade point average dips below 2.0, the borderline for eligibility. Questionnaires are sent to professors every five weeks so that each player's academic progress may be monitored. Walsh has a copy of everyone's schedule, so he knows when a player is and is not supposed to be in class. Any team member who plays hooky, or for that matter hockey, instead of attending class is ordered to appear at Walsh's so-called "breakfast club" meeting, a mandatory 6 a.m. skate in full equipment.

Walsh's efforts have borne fruit on and off the ice. Last year the hockey team's GPA was 2.51, and this year it currently stands at 2.60, not Phi Beta Kappa numbers but above the all-university average of 2.50. "We have a 'Public Ivy League' environment here," says athletic director Kevin White. "I think it's part of the culture, the mystique of the eastern academic tradition. The people up here, they just drip with integrity. They want to see the GPAs at the end of the year, and if the hockey team is below the community, they want to know why."

That ever watchful community also affords the team an almost unheard-of measure of support. Says senior defense-man Dave Nonis, one of seven players from British Columbia and a member of Walsh's first recruiting class, "I'd played in front of crowds from 400 down to maybe 20. I get to Maine and we're getting 1,500 to 1,800 people for intrasquad games. We were getting near-sellout games my first year, and we were losing." The record of Maine's love affair with the hockey team speaks for itself: The Black Bears lead the Hockey East Association in home attendance for the third season in a row, averaging 4,192 per game in the 4,100-seat Alfond Arena. The hockey team consistently out-draws its gridiron counterpart in total attendance, and hockey is the only sport at Maine that operates in the black.

How did Walsh reverse the tide in just four years? The answer is, with a combination of luck, resourceful recruiting and a solid system stressing defense. "You rebuild a program from the inside out," says Walsh. "You can't control the W's and L's in college hockey for a while. So you control what you can: Get food in your system and get a good night's sleep. My first year we lost 12 one- or two-goal games. We couldn't buy a close win, but there were glimmers. My philosophy is simple. You recruit offense, you teach defense. I look for size on defense and speed up front." Says center David Capuano, "In our system you're never really busting to get back because you're on your guy anyway. You've got to have that high guy covered."

Walsh's charm as a recruiter was evident in his first frantic weeks at the school when he signed up right wing Dave Wensley and center Mike Golden. Wensley was in the vanguard of Walsh's "B.C. connection," one of the original four players recruited on Walsh's hurried expedition to British Columbia immediately after his hiring in April 1984. Wensley was so taken with Walsh's pitch that he agreed to attend the school sight unseen. "The first thing I did was grab a globe," says Wensley. "I thought Maine was east, down on the coast, just north of Florida. I worked my way up the map. My eyes got larger and larger as I went higher and higher. I couldn't believe how far north it was." Wensley certainly has no phobia about far-flung locales—his parents are currently living in Bhutan, where his father, Henry, is employed in a United Nations program as a foreman charged with overseeing three wood-processing mills. Wensley remembers being impressed with Walsh's determination right from the beginning. "He said that he wanted to win a national title in four years," Wensley recalls. "He said it was going to take a lot of rebuilding, and he has held to everything he told us."

But Walsh did not restrict his efforts to Canada. The team is evenly split between Americans and Canadians, and perhaps his most important recruit that first year was Golden, a center from Reading, Mass. A top candidate for this year's Hobey Baker award, which is given annually to the nation's top college player, the speedy Golden leads the team and is in the top three in the nation in scoring, with 52 points in 25 games. Golden's history has been a troubled one. After a sterling high school career, he was sought by virtually every major college hockey school in the East and was highly regarded by several NHL teams, including the Edmonton Oilers, which drafted him in the second round in 1983. Acceding to his mother's wishes that he get an education—and mindful of the fact that Edmonton already had some pretty decent centers, including a guy named Gretzky—Golden decided to bide his time, go the college route and enter the NHL later on. "I had a mixed-up view about going to college," Golden says. "I had the impression that I could play in the NHL in a year or two. I didn't go to school with any academic determination."

He flunked out of the University of New Hampshire after one semester. Deciding to forgo college altogether, Golden spent several months playing Junior B hockey in Canada before making a one-day visit to a Junior A team in Portland, Ore. "Had I stayed there for three days, I would have been ineligible for college hockey [because NCAA rules limit such visits to two days]," says Golden.

"When I got to Portland, I suddenly got really apprehensive about the decision I was making. I got on a plane and flew back home. Eventually I sat down with my mother and told her that I wanted to go back to school." After several months working at odd jobs, including assembling modular furniture and cleaning carpets for a Sears store, Golden undertook the task of selling himself to the Eastern schools. To his dismay he discovered that the same people who had once courted him so avidly were less interested now that he had lost a season of eligibility and would have to sit out a year as a transfer.

Maine was not on Golden's list of preferred schools. In fact, he had made up his mind to duck the campus visit that Walsh had arranged for him. "I told Coach Walsh on the phone in November that I wasn't going to make the visit. He really lectured me. He asked me, 'Why are you going to eliminate your options?' He was really stern, almost like a father. I told him, 'Fine, I'll come up and take a look.' "

Walsh's paternal manner obviously struck a responsive chord in Golden, whose father, Frank, died in a fire in 1978. "I came up and sat in on a class and saw a game," recalls Golden. "I really liked the fan support, I liked the team. They weren't that good, but they really worked hard. He [Walsh] also came up with a scholarship for me for 3½ years. I looked at everything up here and decided that I couldn't pass up this opportunity. This was the best decision I ever made. College is the greatest place to grow up."

The luck of the Irish also played a part in Walsh's success, most notably in the person of left wing Mike McHugh from nearby Bowdoin. McHugh, a late bloomer who began skating at the age of 10, was a pure gift, a walk-on who began his college career riding the bench during the first half of Walsh's inaugural 1984-85 season. But when Maine lost six in a row before the Christmas break, Walsh decided to give the kid a shot. McHugh has been a fixture at left wing ever since, increasing his scoring from 17 points that freshman season to 19 as a sophomore to 50 as a junior, including a team-leading 21 goals. This year he has 43 points in 25 games.

Defenseman Jack Capuano, from Cranston, R.I., signed on in Walsh's second recruiting class, and his brother Dave, a center and the Black Bears' leader with 59 points last season as a freshman, came on board one year later. Al Loring, a junior, and Scott King, a sophomore, combine to give the Black Bears the leading goaltending duo in the East. Walsh had the combination he wanted: size on defense, speed up front and exceptional goaltending.

Walsh's conservative defensive philosophy comes as no surprise to those who know about his apprenticeship under Ron Mason, the rink genius who transformed Michigan State into a perennial national power. In fact, many of Walsh's recruiting contacts in British Columbia were forged during his days beating the bushes for Mason. Walsh's tutelage under Mason began early, in 1973, when he was a freshman third-string goalie on Mason's Bowling Green team. "It was brutal," says Walsh. His love of hockey was so great and his interest in coaching already so serious that from the beginning of his freshman year Walsh was performing an incredible juggling act: attending class, practicing with the varsity and playing for the jayvees as well as working as an assistant coach on the Bowling Green High School team and coaching the high school jayvees. It was a hectic schedule that Walsh would continue into his junior year, when a knee injury ended his playing days and Mason invited him to become a student assistant at the university level.

Three years later, having completed a master's program in education, Walsh was hired as a full-fledged assistant at Bowling Green, and when Mason moved on to Michigan State in 1979, Walsh went with him. "I got really close with Ron and Marion [Mason]," says Walsh. "Anything I've accomplished, I owe to them."

Walsh, who is single, says, "I'm married to a little black puck, and I've got 26 kids," he says. "They're like your own. You're so proud of them on some days, and on others you'd like to smack them." There the coach goes, confessing again. The way his team is playing, though, its opponents are the ones who may have to ask forgiveness.

PHOTOANTHONY NESTESome tough Orono cookies: (from left) Golden, coach Walsh, McHugh and Wensley. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEKing, making a save in a 10-4 win over Yale, combines with Loring on goaltending duties. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEIn four years Walsh has built a powerhouse by recruiting offense and teaching defense. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEMcHugh, who began as a walk-on, has become one of the Bears' leading scorers. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEThanks to this prominent sign, Walsh's players know exactly what's expected of them.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)