University of Maine goalie Jeremy Swayman makes a save as sophomore forward Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi tracks the puck during a drill Monday at Alfond Arena in Orono. (Kevin Bennett photo)
ORONO — Twenty years ago, an unheralded Alfie Michaud backstopped the University of Maine to its second NCAA national ice hockey championship.
The current goaltending coach for the Black Bears sees a little of himself in the next person in line to add to the program’s impressive goaltending pedigree.
With Jeremy Swayman arriving as a virtual unknown before assuming the No. 1 job at Alfond Arena last winter as a true freshman, Michaud sees a goalie who could lead Maine back to prominence in both Hockey East and at the national level.
“That was always the case in my career,” said Michaud, who won 28 games between the pipes in 1998-99. “I led the nation in wins that year, and I never got all-Hockey East or anything like that. We were so good defensively, I think guys got overlooked. We were a powerhouse. I knew that in most of the games I was going to see 24-26 shots a night, and I was probably only going to have to make six tough saves. That’s fine, at the end of the day we got what we wanted.”
And one of the things Michaud loves most about Swayman, a fourth-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2017, is Swayman’s view of the bigger picture. Swayman pays little attention to the fact that he appeared in 31 games as a rookie for Maine last season, won 15 games or that he ranked among Hockey East’s best save percentages.
“That’s where Jeremy has his head right. It’s not individual stuff with him,” Michaud said. “At the end of the day, it’s about being able to raise that trophy. That’s what he’s striving for. It’s about work and one day at a time and taking care of today. All that stuff, the whole process, leads us to where we want to get as a team and a program.”
A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Swayman fits the standard issue mold of the modern professional goaltender. He’s 6-foot-2, lanky and athletic. That he was overlooked by many before getting to Maine is understandable; he played only one full season of junior hockey on a team that missed the playoffs in 2016-17. Eleven goalies were selected ahead of him in his draft year.
When he got to Maine, head coach Red Gendron hoped Swayman would simply add to the goaltending mix.
“With everyone that gets recruited there’s the anticipation they will be able to perform at this level,” Gendron said. “The thing that usually differs with each individual is how long it takes.”
For Swayman, it took virtually no time at all.
“I came in with confidence,” Swayman said. “I learned that at a young age, to have confidence to get in there and take the No. 1 job. That’s helped me throughout my career, wanting to be that No. 1 guy and get in there and consistently stop pucks. It’s kind of a simple thing, right? But that’s all I’ve wanted to do.
“The guys in the locker room helped me a ton, the veteran guys especially. They welcomed me with open arms, and the coaching staff gave me every opportunity to succeed and be in that position to be the guy. I totally ran with it.”
“He does have that underdog mentality,” Michaud said. “A few goalies were drafted ahead of him. Any athlete, especially when you get to compete against those guys, there’s always going to be that chip on your shoulder. I’d be worried if he didn’t have that chip on his shoulder.”
Swayman ended up with a 15-12-3 record, a 2.72 goals against average and a .921 save percentage which ranked third overall in Hockey East last season. Maine, which finished 11th in a 12-team league the season before Swayman’s arrival on campus, jumped to fifth last year.
Senior defenseman Rob Michel noticed Swayman was different almost immediately, and he also noticed Swayman’s impact on the Black Bears’ play in front of him.
“He seemed very mature. He fit right in,” Michel said. “In my experience, having that calm, cool and collected guy, like Jeremy and the traits that he has, it helps our team kind of settle in. He’s always dialed in and locked in, which in turn makes us work harder in the defensive zone. For this team, especially, having that presence in the net is huge for us.”
Swayman’s credentials as a goaltender extend, already, beyond Maine. He was a member of bronze medalist Team USA at the IIHF World Junior Championships last December, and he participated in the Boston Bruins development camp in June.
Mike Dunham, who along with Garth Snow was Maine’s goalie for its first national championship in 1993, is now the Bruins goaltending development coach.
“Mike Dunham has taken me under his wing,” Swayman said. “Having a duo with Mike Dunham and Alfie Michaud — you can’t ask for much more than that as a goalie. I’m so lucky to have that available to me.”
Maine is lucky, too, to have Swayman in the fold. While Gendron admits that it’s often difficult for senior Rob McGovern, who struggled to find games in net for the Black Bears last season, he also sees the benefit for the program.
“Goalie is the hardest position in hockey,” Gendron said. “Typically, but not always, one player tends to get most of the playing time. So, it does help build competition within the team. It’s very challenging for the guys who are not playing, but emotionally, if you didn’t care about playing, you probably wouldn’t want to be in the program, anyway.”
Swayman, who won’t turn 20 years old until late November, takes nothing for granted.
“I’ve always had an underdog mentality, and that’s how I usually play,” Swayman said. “I’ve been fortunate to play on teams that gave up a few more shots than most, and I took advantage of that. Honestly, I’m thankful for that. Seeing more shots per game, I got more experiences, more opportunities to get better. Each team I’ve been on has had characteristics of winning, but not having that ‘top dog’ mentality.”
The Black Bears, he believes, can become one of Hockey East’s top dogs — no matter what his final stat line reads.
“I don’t really look at the statistics personally,” he said. “The thing I care about solely is one game at a time and do we get the two points at the end of the day. I’m not satisfied unless we get those two points. As long as my team’s successful, I think we’re having a good year.”
Maine sophomore goalie Jeremy Swayman listens to coaches during a break in practice at Alfond Arena in Orono on Monday. (Kevin Bennett photo)