Having spent most of the season following University of Maine men’s hockey team from the periphery, I had the opportunity last week to get up close and personal with the Black Bears.
Coach Tim Whitehead’s team, making its first NCAA regional appearance since 2007, lost 5-2 to Minnesota-Duluth in a first-round game at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass. The Bears ended the season with a 23-14-2 record.
The experience stuck with me for a couple of reasons.
Perhaps most striking was the way the players handled the disappointment of the loss. As they were called out of the locker room for interviews, some by a handful of different media representatives, UMaine players handled it with class.
I chose to focus on the performance of sophomore goaltender Dan Sullivan. It was apparent in his eyes and face that the loss had hit him hard, but he patiently and thoughtfully answered several questions with poise — even though some pointed to some of his own shortcomings.
What was unmistakable was his disappointment in watching the careers of his senior teammates come to an unceremonious end. He praised them for their leadership, support, commitment and talent — all of which were instrumental in the Black Bears’ resurgence as a top-15 program this season.
The other players were similarly cordial in recapping the game, the season and, for some, their college careers.
Senior Will O’Neill spoke passionately of his confidence in Sullivan and his ability to help UMaine continue its improvement. O’Neill quietly accepted congratulations for becoming on the seventh Bears defenseman to register 100 career points.
Then there was the quiet presence of senior Spencer Abbott, who was fortunate enough to overcome the effects of a concussion in time to be cleared to play against Minnesota-Duluth.
From Abbott’s soft-spoken demeanor, one would never know what an impact player he was for UMaine. In spite of being the leading point-getter in the country and earning Hockey East Player of the Year honors, he didn’t become cocky or overconfident.
Abbott, who on Thursday was named one of three Hobey Hat Trick finalists for the coveted Hobey Baker Award, impressed with his humility.
He spoke not about his abilities, but about the support and guidance he had received at UMaine. Abbott seemed most pleased about sharing the experience with so many valued teammates.
These young men are representative of the overall quality of the student-athletes in the program. Many of them are blue-collar, rather than blue-chip, in terms of their hockey abilities.
Yet it seems the majority are dedicated young men who are outstanding representatives of the team and the university.
Most of the credit there goes to the student-athletes, who have put the lessons their parents and coaches have taught them into practice.
However, Whitehead and the UMaine coaching staff also should be commended for identifying and recruiting the kind of young men that are in the program.
Beyond the wins and losses, fans and observers alike should be proud of the Black Bears for representing themselves, their families and UMaine with class.