Red ... With White and Blue
Gendron Trying to Inspire Maine Back to Top
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
It would be pretty easy to label Maine's 2013-14 campaign as a 'rebuilding season.'
For the third time in six seasons, the Black Bears finished under .500 in 2012-13, and in that span had made the NCAA tournament just once. The higher-ups in Orono decided it was time for a change, and relieved coach Tim Whitehead of his duties.
Whether the dropoff in recent years falls on Whitehead or also on an administration that was unable to keep up financially with other Hockey East schools, is a debate that can be had, and has been had, over and over in Maine circles. But either way, whoever came into the position was going to be faced with challenges.
Names like Jim Montgomery, an alum that ended up coaching Denver, came up in discussion, as did Mark Osiecki, George Gwozdecky and Jim Tortorella. But instead of going in a whole new direction, the Black Bears instead turned back the clock, going with a former assistant of Maine coaching legend Shawn Walsh.
Red Gendron is no stranger to the college game; he helped Yale win a national championship last season as associate coach, his second with the Bulldogs. His resume includes stops at Massachusetts, Indiana of the USHL, the NHL's New Jersey Devils, all after three years and a title with Walsh at Maine.
Gendron is certainly a widely-regarded coaching guru. But one thing he hadn't been was a head coach at this high a level.
Yet Gendron hasn't missed a beat. So far, he's guided the Black Bears to a 12-9-3 record, including a 6-4-2 mark in Hockey East.
"The season has gone great," senior captain Brice O'Connor said. "It starts from the head of the ship with a coach, the changes Coach has made; he holds us to the standard he had set for us this year."
As soon as Gendron set foot on campus in Orono, he set the bar for his team of student-athletes:
"We want to prepare ourselves each and every day," he said, "so that in the end we can challenge for championships, and so we look at growth every day. That's what we're trying to do, is get better every single day, and we take it seriously."
While perfection, he says, is unattainable, the pursuit of such a lofty ideal is a noble goal, and as with all noble goals, there's little time to waste.
"It wasn't, 'We're going to take our time and see what we can do and eventually get to where we want to be,'" O'Connor said. "There wasn't even a transition, it was 'This is what I want, this is what I expect, and we're going to meet it.'"
So far, so good, Gendron says.
"What I see is growth pretty much every week since the season began," Gendron said. "If it can be said of any team that they've gotten better each and every week, then you've got a pretty good chance to be successful."
Based on just quantitative results, Maine has already had its share of success. Defensively, it ranks ninth in Division I, allowing just 2.25 goals per game while the offense scores 3.21 goals per game. The Black Bears power player clicks at a respectable 18.9 percent, and the penalty kill at 83.5 percent. The team has racked up a number of impressive wins, including a 5-1 win over BC, and two victories over BU in which they scored seven times in each.
But it's not about wins and losses, the the coach stresses — and his charges have truly bought in.
Gendron tends not to speak a lot. But when he does, it's authoritative and thoughtful.
"With everything he does, there's a lesson behind it," O'Connor said. "He's trying to teach you something, or get something different out of you. It's not just practice or meetings; you can sit down and talk with him about history or school, and he's wants you to learn. He wants to make you a better person and a better player. That's the biggest style he brings, there's a purpose behind everything he does, and he always want you to be improving."
For instance, on the return trip from the Florida College Classic (where the Black Bears finished second to Cornell after a shootout), the team came through Philadelphia International Airport. Sensing a moment for bonding, the players had their freshman teammates stand together and sing The Maine Stein Song, the school's fight song. While the display no doubt helped the first-year players accrue a sense of camaraderie, Gendron knew he had to take it a step further.
"I said, 'All you guys go up here in the middle of the concourse at Philly International,' and they all sang the Stein Song together," Gendron recalled a few weeks later, after the team thrashed BU 7-3 at Fenway Park. "The beauty of it was the look on their faces when they were all together and they started to sing it, and at first it was like, 'Coach called us out and we gotta stand up in a public place and sing the University of Maine Stein Song? Oh, that old man's crazy.' Which is true ... but, the bottom line is, when you see that kind of togetherness, that's what we want. You get to the point where I don't have to say anything. That's the definition of a great teacher — one who seeks to make himself unnecessary."
There's really no bottom to the bag of lessons that Gendron brings. After 20 years of coaching across every possible level, he's learned from the best, most notable personalities the game has had to offer. He cites Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson, John Cunniff, and Walsh as major influences, and calls Yale's Keith Allain the best coach he knows. Not a bad knowledge base.
"To begin to try and tell, without having four hours to think about what I've learned along the way, is actually impossible," Gendron said. He hopes to do the same with his players, imparting knowledge that will bring them success in hockey, as well as their lives beyond it. "Hard work, competing, and a commitment to getting better every day, that's what we do. The X's and O's is really important. the game, the performance and the habits for the players, all of that stuff is important. All of that starts with having a culture with competitiveness and a willingness to get better.
"The highest thing [we've achieved this season] is how committed our players are to being the best they can be, and how hard they work and how they compete. The results, it sounds cliche, but they take care of themselves."
The results so far say that Maine is a team on the rise: sixth in the ultra-competitve Hockey East, with league play just getting underway. It's 18th in the Pairwise and garnering more and more attention every week from poll voters who are watching the Black Bears get better by the day.
There are still challenges to overcome and it remains to be seen how far the team can go. But there's no denying the generally positive mood in Orono.