Maine Nordiques’ Luke Antonacci and New Jersey Titans’ Jack Karlsson watch a loose puck pop up between them during an NAHL East Division semifinal game in May at The Colisee in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Luke Antonacci and the University of Maine men’s hockey program have been in contact with each other for the past couple of years.

Recently, the Maine Nordiques defenseman committed to play for the Black Bears starting in the 2022-23 season. The 18-year-old Antonacci said that he plans to study business.

He becomes the third Nordiques player to commit to the University of Maine, joining teammate Tyler Gaulin and former teammate Connor Androlewicz, who just completed his freshman season with the Black Bears.

The first time Antonacci spoke to University of Maine assistant coach Alfie Michaud was in 2019 when Antonacci attended a camp with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, before he joined the Nordiques.

“I actually do remember that conversation, and it started out, ‘Hey, you are a great player,’ then it was, ‘Hey, to play at the next level, which would be Division I (college hockey) or junior (hockey), you need to work on being positionally sound all the time,’” Antonacci said. “That can be the little details of when a forward makes a play out of the corner, beating (the forward) back to the net and getting in the way so (the forward) can’t (beat you).’ So little things like that, and he was talking about me getting more sticks on pucks and sticking my stick out to extend my surface area to take up more ice so I can be quicker to pounce on pucks.”

Michaud also told Antonacci that he needed to develop a stronger and a more powerful shot.

Antonacci spent the next few years honing his skills while playing for the Maine Nordiques organization, which is owned by his dad, Darryl Antonacci. Luke Antonacci split time in 2019-20 between the organization’s 18U team and its North American Hockey League team. He spent all of 2020-21 with the NAHL team and ranked second among Nordiques defensemen with 24 points (five goals and 19 assists). He also contributed two goals and two assists in 10 playoff games.

“He was leading our team not only statically but (also) the way he was able to play our brand of hockey, play our (puck-possession) game, but his game (as well),” Nordiques coach Nolan Howe said. “It was a true testament to his development, and he’s a heck of a hockey player. He really helped us win a couple of hockey games with a couple of game-winning goals and being aggressive offensively while being a stout defender that’s so hard to play against.

“Sometimes he gets overlooked because of his size, but he defends with the best of them, he breaks out with the puck with the best of them and he’s adding that offensive element to round out his game.”

Both Howe and Nordiques associate head coach Matt Pinchevsky praised Antonacci work ethic.

Maine Nordiques’ Luke Antonacci takes on a sea of New Jersey Titans while attempting to score a goal in the first period of an NAHL East Division semifinal game at The Colisee in Lewiston in May 2021. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“Being the youngest member of the team, he carried himself an unbelievable way, in terms of being a sponge as far as learning, applying what is learned through the coaching staff,” Pinchevsky said. “Luke Antonacci is the last player to leave the ice every practice we had this (past) year.”

While Antonacci has been speaking with Michaud for a few years, the Black Bears’ new head coach Ben Barr — who took over for Dennis “Red” Gendron who died in April — helped seal his commitment to UMaine.

“(Barr) was a big reason why I chose Maine because he was the (associate head coach and coached the defensemen) at (the University of Massachusetts) and he has done a really good job recruiting and moving on players (to the NHL),” Antonacci said.

Barr came to the University of Maine after helping the UMass Minutemen win the national championship in April. During his time with the Minutemen, from 2016-21, Barr helped developed defensemen Cale Makar, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche and this season was a Norris Trophy finalist (which is awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman), and Mario Ferraro of the San Jose Sharks.

Barr was familiar with Antonacci before he was hired as UMaine’s head coach, having contacted the defenseman about potentially playing for the Minutemen.

“I do believe UMass was also showing interest when (Barr) was there because he was there,” Antonacci said. “We do have a good relationship now.”

Pinchevsky, who also has coached players that have gone to play in the NHL, compares Antonacci to Chase Priskie, a Florida Panthers prospect who was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award — college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy — during his senior season with the Quinnipiac University in 2018-19. Makar ended up winning the Hobey Baker Award that year.

Antonacci and Priskie are both right-shot defensemen. There is a difference in their heights: Priskie is a 6-footer while Antonacci is 5-foot-9.

“There’s a bit of comparison there with the offensive ability, feet, IQ and the way they go about their business,” Pinchevsky said. “Both are excellent students; both are very well-liked teammates, and they love skill-development and can’t get enough. Both are last off the ice.”

Antonacci isn’t sure if he will be returning to the Nordiques for the upcoming season. He was drafted by the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL in May and is attending their main camp this week.

His decision will depend on the kind of opportunities the Musketeers have to offer him.

“I will say this, if I was given a role that I didn’t see myself developing in-game situations as much as I would (with the Maine Nordiques) then I would for sure go back to (the Nordiques),” Antonacci said.

The Nordiques developed a working relationship with the Musketeers two years ago. Goalies Connor Androlewicz and Avery Sturtz each received call-up opportunities from Sioux City in 2019-20 and the Muskateers sent Ignat Belov to the Nordiques that same year.

Howe will understands if Antonacci accepts the opportunity to play in the USHL, the lone Tier I junior hockey league sanction by USA Hockey.

“Whatever the best fit for him moving forward, we are going to fully support,” Howe said. “With all of our players, it’s about their advancement, it’s about moving on and continuing their hockey careers, and what we try to do is give them the tools to develop and the opportunity to develop.

“If Luke comes back, it will be with open arms. And if it’s with the USHL, we will fully support that. At the end of the day, he’s a Nordique for life, and he knows that.”


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