ORONO — When conducting practices at Alfond Arena, Ben Barr is surrounded by ghosts and memories, hopes and expectations.

In the rafters at the north end of the rink, above the balcony filled on game nights with students raining down taunts on the opposing goaltender, hang the two national championship banners won by the University of Maine men’s hockey team, in 1993 and 1999. Both are older than many of the players taking the ice for the Black Bears this season.

At the opposite end of the rink is the banner celebrating the program’s NCAA tournament appearances, the last of which came in 2012.

Barr, 39, is the man UMaine hired last spring to update that Alfond Arena decor. A collegiate head coach for the first time, he comes to Orono with a reputation as an elite recruiter. As an assistant coach, Barr attracted players to three schools that won NCAA Division I championships, including the University of Massachusetts this year.

“He’s shown he’s got a good eye for talent. He understands that college hockey is recruiting, period. If you don’t recruit, you’re not going to win,” said Tom Ward, a former college and pro hockey coach who coached Barr as a high school senior at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a prep school in Minnesota.

Barr is tasked with reviving a program that once was the talk of the state, but has been far less relevant for more than a decade. The Black Bears advanced to the national semifinals 11 times between 1987 and 2007. Over the 14 seasons since then, the team has lost more games than it has won.

His hiring comes as the university’s athletic department has launched an ambitious campaign to raise $20 million in private donations over the next 10 years to complement the $90 million it received from the Harold Alfond Foundation to update athletic facilities on the Orono campus. That includes upgrades to Alfond Arena, home to the men’s and women’s ice hockey teams, and the expansion of the Shawn Walsh Hockey Center, including new locker rooms.

Barr’s background – as a player at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and as an assistant coach at Union College, Providence College, Western Michigan and UMass – has prepared him for this challenge. The Black Bears open the 2021-22 season with games at the University of Nebraska-Omaha on Friday and Saturday. Maine’s first regular-season games in Alfond Arena are scheduled for Oct. 22-23 against Sacred Heart.

Barr signed a four-year contract and will earn $235,000 a year, making him the the highest paid member of the university’s athletic department. The contract will be extended two more years if the Black Bears post a winning record in Hockey East play during Barr’s first three seasons.

The Black Bears went 3-11-2 last winter in a season shortened by the pandemic. While Maine’s winning tradition may be dusty, Barr knows he has to tap into it on the recruiting trail.

“For me, it’s finding players who have an interest and want to be here,” he said. “There’s a lot of them out there. I can tell you, the Maine hockey brand is still pretty strong, more so than anywhere else I’ve been as an assistant.”

ROOTS IN MINNESOTA

The head coaching job at UMaine opened with the unexpected death of Dennis “Red” Gendron in April. The search for Gendron’s replacement was quickly initiated, with former Maine standouts Jim Montgomery, Garth Snow and Bruce Major serving on the selection committee. Barr quickly emerged as the top candidate. Those who have known him the longest are not surprised.

“He was a great communicator with everybody. He was a hard worker,” said Mike Carpentier, a close friend of Barr’s since they were ninth-graders at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. “His ability to call someone out without doing it in the wrong way, in a respectful manner, was really unique,. You look back on it, Ben was just such an easy teammate. He got along with everybody.”

Ben Barr directs the University of Maine men’s hockey team during a practice at Alfond Arena last week. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

ESPN has called Shattuck-St. Mary’s the Hogwarts of hockey, referencing the school for wizards in the Harry Potter books. Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, the NHL’s No. 1 draft pick in 2005, attended Shattuck-St. Mary’s for a year. So did Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, the first pick in the 2013 draft.

The school is located in Fairbault, Minnesota, the city where Barr was born. His father, Rick Barr, and uncle, Brant Barr, both attended Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the 1970s, and it was always assumed Ben would follow in their footsteps.

“It’s probably as good as you can get,” Barr said of the hockey atmosphere at the school. “The coaches they have there and the culture they have and the detail they put into it.

“I’ve said it many times, it’s probably the reason I get to talk to you today and the reason I got to play in college. I learned so much. That time in your life, you’re really impressionable too, so you take it with you the rest of your life.”

Ward, still the head coach at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, was impressed by Barr early on.

“He got along great with his teammates and was a gregarious member of our community here,” Ward said. “You could tell he had his wits about him, for sure.”

Maine captain Jack Quinlivan says new coach Ben Barr put him at ease the first time they spoke. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

That personable side of Barr struck Maine captain Jack Quinlivan during their first conversation. Still mourning Gendron barely a month after his death, Quinlivan and Barr spoke via phone the day Barr was hired in May. The new coach’s demeanor put Quinlivan at ease.

“We talked on the phone and he was super excited. After the passing of Red, it was nice to see something exciting happen for the program,” Quinlivan said.

Matt Fawcett, a junior forward and transfer from Quinnipiac University, was eager to be a piece of what Barr is building at Maine, and was one of the coach’s first recruits.

“I like the way he coaches. It was very attractive to me. The school and the rich history at Maine really attracted me here,” Fawcett said. “I like the high pace of play. That’s what he’s bringing us, and I think we’re going to execute it well.”

GREATEST SUCCESS AT UMASS

Barr calls each of the head coaches for whom he played and worked a mentor, but it’s arguably at UMass, where he spent the last five seasons working under Greg Carvel, where Barr had the greatest impact as an assistant coach, and where he grew into a coach who could run his own program. With Barr on Carvel’s staff, UMass played in the NCAA final in 2019 and won the 2021 national title. Their coaching relationship seemed easy, but it took time to develop.

“I think I was a different type of head coach than he had worked for previously, and I think it took him a while to understand my style,” Carvel said. “Once he got into a comfort zone with me, he really started to flower. The last two years, especially last year, I knew I had another head coach on the bench with me, and that was very comforting for me.”

Ben Barr worked alongside head coach Greg Carvel at the University of Massachusetts for the past five seasons. UMass won the NCAA title this year and advanced to the NCAA championship game in 2019. University of Massachusetts athletics

Carvel describes himself as a coach whose style is centered on what players do with the puck on their stick, while Barr was more concerned with what players did without the puck, particularly defensively. Between Carvel’s penchant for creativity and Barr’s adherence to discipline and structure, there was plenty of common ground in the middle.

“I think we played off each other well. He let other people talk,” Barr said. “That was his strongest suit. Ultimately, it was his decision, he ran the program. But he would take things in, and if he liked it he would use it. He was very open to things, which was a good lesson for me.”

Barr’s relationship with Carvel shapes how he plans to work with his assistant coaches at Maine: Alfie Michaud, the lone holdover from Gendron’s staff, Jason Fortier, Daniel Perez, and Matthew Vanden Berg.

“They’re all very confident people, so I have to be open and listen,” Barr said.

‘DIALED INTO THE DETAILS’

By nature, fans aren’t patient. They want wins and they want them now. But it will take time for UMaine to rebuild under Barr as he molds the team into his vision.

Ward, who coached at the University of Minnesota and with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres along with his tenure at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, said the faster that holdover players buy into Barr’s system as he brings in his own recruits, the faster Maine will see success. In the Hockey East preseason coaches poll, Maine was picked 10th in the 11-team league.

“I don’t think the cupboard was completely bare there from Red (Gendron),” Ward said. “I think they did a good job. They had a competitive group. So it’s not like he’s starting from zero. He’s a got some players, and he’s got a great program to sell. Black Bear hockey’s got a great tradition and I’m sure he’ll lean on that a lot.”

Barr stressed to his team that any success that comes this season will be because they all work hard every shift, every game. There are teams in Hockey East that have the talent to overcome an off night and earn a win. Maine is not one of them.

“For us, especially now to have success, we all have to be dialed in to the details very well,” Barr said last week.” I told the guys the other day, we can’t have three or four guys out to lunch for a game. That’s not the makeup of our team. If we get 18 skaters going every night, we’ll be fine. But if we only have 15, 16, we’re not going to win. That’s the reality.”

Quinlivan, the UMaine captain, said it’s been a team-wide adjustment learning new systems.

“He wants to move up and down the ice fast, control the puck and play down low offense. I’ve been here four years, so it’s relearning a lot of things, but it’s exciting. But it’s also challenging,” Quinlivan said. “Coaches have different mentalities and strategies. Every coach implements their own style of play. He expects the most out of us every day, same as Red.”


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