The student section in the balcony at Orono’s Alfond Arena cheers on the University of Maine men’s hockey team during a game this season. Many of them waited in line hours before to game to ensure getting a seat. Anthony DelMonaco/Courtesy of UMaine athletics

ORONO — The doors to Alfond Arena wouldn’t open until about 6 p.m., an hour before the game, but Nathaniel Swanson wasn’t taking any chances.

Swanson, a 20-year old University of Maine junior from Peabody, Massachusetts, arrived at 1:25 p.m. to ensure he’d be one of lucky ones there in time to get his student ID scanned and claim a good spot in the balcony student section. The men’s hockey game against the University of New Hampshire was scheduled to begin 5 ½ hours later.

“This is the biggest home game of the season. I haven’t missed one yet,” Swanson said shortly after 4 p.m. By now, the line of students behind Swanson stretched across the parking lot to the sidewalk in front of Alfond Stadium, the football field, and around the corner and past the scoreboard that greets fans to UMaine’s athletic complex.

“The team’s good this year. I think there’s more buzz, definitely. Everyone wants to be here,” said Swanson, whose twin brother, Avery, joined him in line when he got off work at 3.

The line of students awaiting entry into the arena is just one of the signs that the excitement is back for the UMaine men’s hockey team. Four of the six games the Black Bears have hosted at Alfond Arena (capacity 5,043) have sold out, including their 5-2 victory over New Hampshire last Friday. Last season, Maine sold out just two of 19 home games.

Wins last weekend over Hockey East rivals UNH and UConn helped vault Maine to No. 8 in the latest national poll, the Black Bears’ highest ranking in 12 seasons. Saturday night’s “home” game against Bentley in Portland at the 6,500-seat Cross Insurance Arena also is sold out, with approximately 120 tickets available through Ticketmaster’s verified resale as of 11 a.m. Friday.


“They’re just beginning to believe in us a little more. They’re showing support, and so far this year we’ve been producing and giving them what they want. That keeps them coming back,” said co-captain Lynden Breen, who centers the top line with freshmen standouts Bradly and Josh Nadeau on the wings.

Donavan Villeneuve-Houle leads a line of Maine hockey players greeting the crowd after a victory at Alfond Arena this season.  Anthony DelMonaco/Courtesy of UMaine athletics

The buzz about the team sparks memories of the glory era of Black Bears hockey. Between 1988 and 2007, Maine went to 11 Frozen Fours, winning national championships in 1993 and 1999. Since 2007, however, the Black Bears have had just six winning seasons in 16 years, and haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2012.

Wednesday’s win at Union College improved the Black Bears to 9-3-1 on the season. By comparison, Maine didn’t win its ninth game last season until Jan. 14. In 2021-22, Ben Barr’s first season as coach, the Black Bears won seven games total.

“I think we know our identity. We have to work hard and we have the ability to make plays,” Barr said following the 7-3 win over UConn on Sunday. “I don’t think we had our identity tonight and still found a way to win. We don’t get like that too often when we’re playing well.”

Maine is ranked in the top 25 nationally in a number of key statistics. The Black Bears are 10th in faceoff win percentage (.539), 10th in goals per game (3.62), 21st in power play efficiency (.211), 15th in scoring defense (2.46 goals per game), and eighth in scoring margin (1.15). Perhaps most importantly, Maine is the fourth-least penalized team in the country, averaging just 7.85 penalty minutes per game.

A senior who joined the team in the fall of 2020, Breen said the Black Bears are playing with a confidence he hadn’t seen until this season.


“The last two years, it’s trying to stay in the game. This year, we have a lot of expectations for ourselves,” Breen said Sunday following the win over the Huskies. “Even tonight, we didn’t play our best. (UConn) took over for most of the game. It’s nice to not play our best and still come out with a W. It’s special, but we can’t play that way every night or some teams are going to take it to us.”

Barr agreed, noting that he called a timeout after a Bradly Nadeau goal gave Maine a 5-3 lead early in the third period to tell the team despite the score, it wasn’t playing well. The addition of Bradly Nadeau, Carolina’s first-round pick in the 2023 NHL draft, and Josh Nadeau gives the Black Bears playmakers, but Barr pointed out they can’t just rely on a couple players to snap the team out of a funk.

“It starts with our work ethic. That’s the big thing,” said junior defenseman David Breazeale, a co-captain. “We talk about our effort and our attitude, and that’s what we can control. When we go out and give our best effort, it’s going to be hard for any team to beat us.”

The Black Bears have sold out four of six home games at Alfond Arena this season, compared to two sellouts in 19 games last winter. Anthony DelMonaco/Courtesy of UMaine athletics

For alumni who played at Maine during the glory days, the return to national prominence is gratifying.

“I follow them very closely,” said Dan Shermerhorn, a former Maine player who lives in Calgary, Alberta. “Maine is becoming a place to be again.”

The college hockey landscape has changed dramatically since Shermerhorn played for the Black Bears in the mid-1990s. He scored the game-winning goal in the third overtime for a 4-3 win over Michigan in the 1995 national semifinals, sending Maine to the NCAA championship game.


Today, there are more teams after recruits, with more on-campus amenities that make it harder for a smaller program like Maine to thrive. Maine’s success played a big role in Shermerhorn’s decision. The Calgary native arrived in Orono the season following the 1993 championship.

“For me, it was wanting to go to a successful program with a winning attitude,” Shermerhorn said. “Success usually brings more success. … There’s a lot of talent there now.”

In his four-year career at Maine, Peter Metcalf played in three Frozen Fours, winning the national title in 1999 as a Hockey East All-Rookie defensemen, and was captain of the 2002 team that fell in overtime to Minnesota in the NCAA championship game. Now living in Scarborough with his family, Metcalf has been to Orono for a few games this season and plans to attend Saturday’s game in Portland. The Black Bears’ improvement this season stems from their ability to control the puck, Metcalf said.

“The reason why the (Boston) Bruins are so good is they possess the puck. It’s the same for Maine. You have the puck, the other team can’t score. They have more speed this season,” said Metcalf, a Hockey East First Team selection as a senior in 2002.

Like Shermerhorn, Metcalf acknowledged that recruiting top players to Maine is difficult. Metcalf recalled the confidence former coach Shawn Walsh instilled in him during the recruiting process. Walsh made Metcalf feel like he was his guy, and was going to get every opportunity to prove it. That’s the kind of players Maine needs to continue to recruit, Metcalf said. Talented hockey players who aren’t interested in the spotlight playing in a city like Boston or Minneapolis brings, but who are eager to work. Those are the kind of players Metcalf sees Barr bringing to Orono.

“I didn’t care about the glitz and glamor. Those are the kind of guys Maine gets,” Metcalf said.

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