Think quickly: Who’s the most accomplished athlete from Maine in the last 25 years?

It’s tough to argue with gold in the trophy cases of Joan Benoit Samuelson and Ian Crocker. Seth Wescott probably needs to excel in at least one more Olympiad before he’s ready for that comparison.

Billy Swift was a 20-game winner with a hellacious arm.

Cindy Blodgett kept girls, boys, parents and great-great-grandparents interested in basketball for the first eight years after Larry Bird’s retirement.

Joey Gamache and Ricky Craven probably held the greatest public sway as they ascended to the mountaintop. Too bad that questions dog both men regarding what might have happened if their careers had been handled differently, and if post-concussion syndrome hadn’t reared its groggy head.

And that’s a wrap. Right?

Wrong. I’m not talking about the omission of an honorable mention, either. You could make a case that now-retired National Hockey League defenseman Eric Weinrich of Gardiner belongs at the top of the mountain. But I bet you could stop nine self-identifying sports fanatics on any sidewalk in our sometimes excessively proud state, and six of them would rattle off their list without breathing Weinrich’s name.

That lack of respect may or may not be a forgivable sin, but it’s not entirely the transgressor’s fault.

Let’s blame Weinrich, in part. He has merely played one of the most thankless positions in professional sports without fanfare or complaint for eight different franchises. He has done it without whining about the size of his paycheck relative to market value. He has maintained said value without flaunting otherworldly offensive talent and without devolving into a belligerent thug.

Basically, he was everything we collectively cried that professional sports should be, and then it slipped our mind that he existed.

While we’re at it, let’s award the NHL first, second and third place in the blame game. Hockey remains less popular than tiddlywinks in every media market south of Medicine Hat because the keepers of the professional flame promote themselves as well as Trident promotes tooth decay.

Ever wonder why thousands of us flock to high school, junior, college and minor league games all autumn, winter and spring long, all the while tuning out everything else this side of a Stanley Cup Game 7? It’s all about TV.

True, the intensity of hockey doesn’t translate well to any screen built before the high-definition revolution, but I know dozens of basic cable subscribers who would be willing to overlook that if they could find a freaking game. No truth to the rumor that there’s a bidding war in progress between MTV2, Lifetime Movie Network and Trinity Broadcasting for the next NHL television contract.

None of that absolves us from our accountability for forgetting five years ago that Weinrich was still in the league.

This is Maine, for Hannibal Hamlin’s sake. We are so celebrity starved in these parts that we’ll adopt any B-list actor who owns a vacant lot on Isle au Haut. During much of his career with the Baltimore Orioles, Michigan-born Mike Bordick was worshipped simply because he lived in Auburn and worked out at the ‘Y’ two or three months of the year.

Google him and you’ll learn that Weinrich was born in Roanoke, Va., but he is utterly, unequivocally, 100 percent a Mainer. Home was Gardiner, camp was Tripp Lake, school was North Yarmouth Academy and college was Orono.

There was no hint of “me” or “I” in Monday’s retirement speech or in the nearly two decades of professional hockey that preceded it. It’s safe to say that his new employer, the Portland Pirates, made him do it.

Weinrich played for eight NHL teams. Eight teams! Based on the usual rate of turnover, that probably means at least a dozen coaches. Each of them felt a smidge more job security every night they were able to pencil in Weinrich.

He was a gentleman enforcer. He didn’t score many goals, but he scored many meaningful ones.

Eric Weinrich never had a glamorous job on the ice. To an entire generation of hockey enthusiasts, however, he was one of the best in the business at what he did.

Nothing against the other names on our short list, but they either lacked that stature or that kind of staying power.

Weinrich lacked nothing but glamour.

Which, again, makes him the ideal cover model for the mythical Encyclopedia of Maine Sports in the modern era. Whether we recognize it or not.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]


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