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This wasn't a fall from grace, it was a plunge. After going 42-1-2 and winning the national championship two years ago with what some observers called the finest college hockey team ever, the Black Bears of Maine slipped to 6-29-1 last season—or 17-15-4 if, like most Bear fans, you can't bring yourself to count the games the team had to forfeit for using players who were academically ineligible under NCAA rules. Either way, wins and losses were the least of Maine's problems.

Before last season six players were lost to the U.S. national team; during the course of the season three others were found to be academically ineligible, resulting in the forfeiture of 14 games; Hockey East, the conference the Black Bears play in, barred them from its postseason tournament before the school obtained an injunction that allowed the team to compete; Shawn Walsh, the coach, was suspended by Maine for five games; athletic director Mike Ploszek and the school's NCAA compliance officer, Linwood Carville, were forced to walk the plank; and the NCAA launched a still-pending investigation.

From this 36-car pileup of a season has arisen the most surprising team of '94-95. At week's end the Black Bears were 26-2-6 and have spent much of the last three months ranked first in the nation even though this is Walsh's least talented team in seven or eight years. "The chemistry of this team is amazing," says senior defenseman Chris Imes, who returned from the Olympics to captain the Bears. It has to be, he adds, "because we don't have that many good individuals."

At a team meeting at the end of last season Walsh set what he thought was a reasonable goal for '94-95: a berth in the NCAA tournament. Afterward Imes took him aside and chewed him out. Recalls Walsh, "He said, 'What's this about just making it to the tournament? We're going to win it!' I told him I was just trying to be realistic."

The Black Bears have the nation's No. 2 power play and have allowed the fewest goals of any team. Recent indications that the NCAA is unlikely to complete its investigation in time to prevent the Black Bears from playing in the NCAAs in March have caused joy in Orono, but the school's transgressions don't sit well with some Hockey Hast rivals. Earlier this season Boston University coach Jack Parker complained to the Boston Globe that Maine had "put a black mark on the league. A very, very black mark."

Party On

Half the guests were swearing, half were crying. The party was off to a bad start.

So certain were the Colorado College Tigers that they would receive an invitation to last spring's NCAA tournament that, on the day the pairings were announced, they accepted a more modest invite. A local TV station asked them to come down to the studio for some pizza. The sight of the Tigers celebrating their first NCAA bid since 1978 would make great TV.

And great it was—if you're the kind of person who enjoys watching people pluck the wings off flies. When the list of the 12 invitees appeared on the screen, Colorado College was conspicuous by its absence. "A lot of jaws dropped," recalls junior center Jay McNeill. "I just remember looking at our seniors, and some of them were in tears." Despite a first-round loss to Michigan Tech in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament, the Tigers had won the WCHA regular season title and finished 23-11-5.

The snubbing of Colorado College raised such a stink that in the off-season the NCAA passed the so-called Colorado College rule. Now, each of the four Division I conferences—WCHA, Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Eastern College Athletic Conference and Hockey East—gets two automatic bids: one for the winner of its postseason tournament, another for its regular-season champ.

That's good news for the Tigers, who are 25-9 and comfortably atop the WCHA. They are on the cusp of repeating as conference champs because they have corrected a traditional weakness—lack of depth. The WCHA's top 12 scorers include five Tigers, the most talented of whom is McNeill, whose 30 goals are tied for the lead in the nation.

"The disappointment of last spring has become a rallying cry for us," says Don Lucia, who replaced Brad Buetow behind the bench in 1993. Buetow began the '92-93 season by serving a school-imposed 60-day suspension for diverting athletic department funds to pay a volunteer coach. Then, displeased with the Tigers' goaltending, he invited a junior college player from North Dakota to practice with the team—another NCAA no-no. In February, Buetow resigned under pressure, and the Tigers lost 11 of their last 12 games and finished the season 8-28.

Lucia's motto last season was lighten up. Recognizing that the team had been "emotionally wrecked" by the previous season, he kept things upbeat and fun, conducting, for instance, a Superstars competition during training camp. The team responded by going from worst to first in the WCHA, clinching the school's first conference title in 37 years. Says Lucia, "The season was like a fairy tale."

A fairy tale with a David Lynch ending. This season the Tigers have the Colorado College rule to ensure that there will be no repeat of last spring's nightmare. Once the WCHA title is wrapped up, Colorado College will be NCAA tournament-bound. Then it will be safe to order pizza.

And the Winner Is...

The race for this season's Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best player in college hockey, has been an easy one to handicap. It's the Zinger, by a mile.

No one in the country has played as consistently well as Bowling Green senior center Brian Holzinger, a final cut from the '94 Olympic team who has rebounded from that disappointment to score 30 goals and set up 30 more in his first 31 games this season. At the Badger Hockey Showdown in December, the 5'11", 185-pound Parma, Ohio, native had five goals and four assists in two games and was named MVP—even though the Falcons made it only to the consolation round. Says one Hockey East coach, "They should just give [the award] to Holzinger now."

PHOTOMONTY RANDImes (right) has the Bears Once again reaching to be No. 1. PHOTODAVE BLACKWith McNeill scoring goals at a nation-leading clip, the Tigers should avoid another NCAA snub.

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)