LEWISTON — Coach Maria Lewis and the University of Maine women's ice hockey team spent Wednesday afternoon skating at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, surrounded by dozens of young ice hockey players with aspirations of following in the Black Bears' footsteps.
The next time those players step onto the ice sheet at the Lewiston facility, the company won't likely be so small, and they certainly won't be in awe.
For the second time in three years, the Maine women will play a game at the Colisee. This year's contest will have an international flare to it: Maine will face the Russian women's national squad in a Thanksgiving exhibition at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"Any time you have an opportunity to play a national team against any country, whether it's a U.S. team, a Canadian team or Europe, Russia, it's a great opportunity," Maine coach Maria Lewis said. "It's great for the players, and for the community. It's an experience they won't soon forget."
More popular among men's teams, and typically against U.S.- or Canadian-based opponents, international exhibitions are relatively rare for women's teams. But when the opportunity arose for Lewis and the Black Bears, she wasn't about to pass it up.
"Michele Amidon, who runs U.S.A. Hockey on the women's side, she sent out an email that the Russians were going to be in Boston and they were looking for games," Lewis said. "I saw that and jumped on it right away. The only day they had available to play us was Thanksgiving."
Originally, the thought was to play the game in Boston. But then Lewis remembered the Colisee, and saw a chance to play a bit closer to home.
"The last time we were here against UNH, it was a great crowd, it was a big win, and it was a really fun experience for our players," Lewis said. "When they wanted us to play the game in Boston, I threw out, 'Hey, why don't we take it to Lewiston?' I've been wanting to come back and play here again, we had the chance to do that, and they said yes."
The Maine women have struggled to begin the season, one year after posting one of the best seasons in program history. The Black Bears are 2-8-1 this season, and just 1-6 in Hockey East. But they've showed signs of life the past couple of weeks, posting a win and a tie at Bemidji State and on Nov. 9 and 10, and then narrowly falling to perennial power New Hampshire, 2-1, on Nov. 17.
But Lewis is well aware that the competition level will be up a notch against the Russian national squad. As for preparations, Lewis said it's hard to game plan for a team against which you have never played, and for which there is no game film or common opponents.
"The only thing I know is that they're a physical team," Lewis said. "We're prepared to play to play tough against them. We expect a team that's at a high level."
The solution? Work on getting better as a unit, and hopefully use the neutral-site game as a springboard into the next part of the team's NCAA schedule, which is busy before winter break.
"It's good to have good opponents to play against, and we just have to play our game," Lewis said. "There'ds no need to change or have any trickery, or any special plays or anything, because those aren't the things that we would do throughout the league. This is an opportunity for us to try to continue to get better in the way that we play."
Tickets for Thursday's contest at the Colisee are $3 and are general admission, and can be purchased at the Colisee or by phone.