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SPORTS: Maine Black Bears


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Niko Dimitrakos shows off the trophy after the University of Maine won its second NCAA national championship in 1999. The Black Bears' status as a perennial national title contender has a positive impact on the university's reputation, its ability to attract students, and its potential for raising money for the athletic program. BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO



Referee Steve Piotrowski (left) explains a call to Maine head coach Tim Whitehead (second from right) and assistant coach Grant Standbrook during the national championship game against Minnesota in 2002. Whitehead and Standbrook have been instrumental in Maine's perennial success. BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO










Bears' success has raised UM's profile

Saturday, April 01, 2006 - Bangor Daily News << Back


Since the 1987-88 season, when the late Shawn Walsh's University of Maine men's hockey team made its first appearance in an NCAA Frozen Four, no team has made more Frozen Four appearances than Maine.


When the Black Bears take the ice for Thursday's semifinal against Wisconsin at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, it will be their 10th Frozen Four appearance.


The University of Michigan, with nine Frozen Four berths, is next. No other school has more than seven. Maine's Hockey East rivals, Boston College and Boston University, have seven apiece.


Maine won national championships in 1993 and 1999 and has been the runner-up three more times.


The men's hockey team is clearly the flagship program for the university and its success has far-reaching benefits that have positively impacted the school, the state, and the region.


Despite the expense of running a Division I hockey program, the revenue produced by the hockey program far outweighs the expense.


"Eighty percent of the revenues the athletic program receives from ticket sales, fundraising, and merchandising can be attributed to the hockey program. It comes out to roughly $2.5 million a year," said former Maine athletic director Patrick Nero, who left a year ago to become the commissioner of America East.


Pam Rideout, manager of retail services, including the Bear Necessities gift shop, said approximately 40 percent of all the merchandise (T-shirts, sweaters, pens, hats) sold at the gift shop, via telephone orders or through the GoBlackBears.com Web site, will have a Maine hockey logo on it.


They are marketing Frozen Four paraphernalia now and she said if the Black Bears win the national championship, it will prompt a rush of paraphernalia with "national championship" recognition on it and sales would be "crazy."


"We be shipping out hundreds of packages a day," Rideout said.


All the revenues obtained through Bear Necessities go directly to the athletic department for dispersal among the various programs.




Success has trickle-down effect


Nero said an athletic program's success is "always determined by your leading program. You need something to give you name recognition in order to excite your fan base and generate revenues.


"All of the other athletes and coaches understand the importance of the hockey program and gets them fired up.


"Some of the years [that] the other programs have done well coincide with how the hockey program has done."


"It's a great morale builder and it makes it a lot easier to raise money," added Nero.


The Bears' five Frozen Four appearances over the last eight years is matched only by BC, and their three trips in the last five years under fifth-year coach Tim Whitehead is equaled only by Minnesota.


Maine has qualified for the NCAA Tournament the past eight seasons, the second-longest current streak behind Michigan's 16 straight.


Maine women's soccer coach Scott Atherley concurred that the hockey program's success "impacts all of our sports significantly, including mine," he said. "In soccer, you see it specifically on the recruiting front.


"Prospective student-athletes we are recruiting are aware of the success of the men's hockey program and it gives our entire athletic program instant credibility."


Atherley pointed out he recruits a lot of Canadians and "they've all heard of Paul Kariya and the Kariya family."


Kariya, the only freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award (1993), was followed to Maine by younger brothers Steve and Marty and sister Noriko, who played field hockey.


He said student-athletes figure if Maine can attract elite players for the hockey program, "we must have a competitive soccer program."


And that has been the case as the Black Bears have reached the America East tournament championship game the last two seasons.


Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove said any time a program is successful, it helps the entire department.


"It's good for everybody. There's a general feeling that we're all working together as a department and when a fellow student-athlete or fellow coach has success, it motivates all of us," Cosgrove said. "There's a camaraderie between the athletes and coaches."


Nero added that "it opens doors for the other programs."


But it isn't just prospective athletes who are favorably influenced by a university with a nationally prominent athletic program. Nonathletes are also influenced.


University of Maine President Robert Kennedy said a study was compiled to gauge the impact a star athlete and nationally prominent program had on the number of student applications to the institution.


"[Former Virginia Tech star and current Atlanta Falcons quarterback] Michael Vick was one of the athletes and the study indicated applications to Virginia Tech were up when he was there," said Kennedy.


"It helps," added Kennedy.


Nero said the hockey program is a conversational "ice-breaker" with potential donors, alumni, and prospective students.


Former Maine goalie and current New York Islanders netminder Garth Snow, who teamed up with Mike Dunham to helped lead the Bears to their first NCAA title, said "sports play a big role in college life in general.


"A lot of people I know in the business world have told me they used to go to hockey or basketball or football games when they were in college," said Snow.


He added when people find out he went to Maine, the conversation usually revolves around the hockey program.


And there is absolutely no question about how crucial the hockey program's success is to its own recruiting.


"That's why I came to Maine," said sophomore defenseman Bret Tyler of Maynard, Mass. "There are so many schools in Boston you could go to, but Maine's tradition and national championships made it an easy decision. I came to Maine to go to Frozen Fours [and win a national championship]."


Sophomore left wing Billy Ryan of Milton, Mass., decided to pick Maine for the same reason and said his older brother Mike, who played at Northeastern, helped him choose Maine.


"He always said if you want to go to a winning program, go to Maine. They'll never have a losing team," said Ryan.


In addition to wanting to vie for a national championship, Ryan pointed out the players receive more exposure the farther they advance and "the more games you play, the better you get."


Freshman goalie Ben Bishop from Des Peres, Mo., and sophomore right wing Rob Bellamy from Westfield, Mass., also wanted to play for a program that perennially contends for an NCAA title.


"It was a huge factor. Maine is always in the NCAA Tournament," said Bishop. "I remember going to Florida for Easter weekend when I was a kid and didn't know what college hockey was all about. I watched Maine play in a Frozen Four. Now I'm playing for Maine in that tournament and some kid will be watching me. That's pretty exciting."


Bellamy said he always wants to be in the position he is now.


"It's going to be an unbelievable experience. The state of Maine and our fans deserve it," he said.


"That's what you want, a chance to win a national championship every year," senior center Jon Jankus added.




Fan support aids program


The tremendous fan support has also been critical in the recruiting process. Senior right wing and captain Greg Moore said the success and the fan support go hand-in-hand.


"It goes full circle. When recruits come to visit and they see the atmosphere at home games and how much of a family our program is, they're excited to come here. The fans have been great and any time we play at Alfond Arena, they know we've got a great chance to win the game. The fans help us win games," said Moore.


Snow said Maine's 10 Frozen Four appearances in 19 years is a "great tribute to recruiting Maine does and the best recruiting tool is having the fans show up for every game like they do.


"Take away the money I'm getting paid by the Islanders and I'd rather play at Maine," chuckled Snow.


Assistant coach Campbell Blair said NCAA Tournament games "are games our recruits want to play in because, down the road, they're steppingstones to where they want to eventually play: in the NHL. If they can play well in big showcase games like these, it helps them."


Assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Grant Standbrook, who is in his 18th season at Maine, said the program's tradition and consistent NCAA Tournament berths are "good for the fans and stimulating for the coaching staff as far as going into next year."


"It's exciting for the kids who are coming in next year because they feel part of the program already. And the players we're recruiting for a year or two down the road will look at us very seriously," added Standbrook.




The state has embraced the team


Gov. John Baldacci from Bangor said the hockey program has given the state and the university significant recognition.


"They've had visits to the White House [after their national championships] and met with presidents and dignitaries, and they've been to the Hall of Flags and the State House [in Augusta]," said Baldacci. "They make us all very proud. They lift everybody's spirits."


Kennedy and Nero said when they visited alumni, especially those living out of state, the hockey program's status was a common topic of conversation.


The exposure the school receives in the national media is important.


The Frozen Four semifinals will be televised on ESPN2 and the title game will be on ESPN.


The Frozen Four also gets national attention in print media such as USA Today, pointed out Nero.


"There's no question the publicity and recognition we get from the hockey program is wonderful for the school," said Kennedy.


Local businessman Tom Palmer said when he goes on the road, he usually wears University of Maine paraphernalia "and it always strikes up a conversation."


Former Bears captain Ray Jacques said, "It makes me feel proud to put my Maine hockey ring on every day. It gives you a great feeling inside."


And University of New Hampshire coach Dick Umile pointed out Hockey East has benefited from Maine's success.


"There's no question they've done a lot for the league, the state of Maine, and the University of Maine," said Umile. "They're a big-time playoff hockey program."


Maine's overall NCAA Tournament record of 28-17 is the best among the Hockey East teams and its two national championships is one more than BC and Boston University.








Larry Mahoney



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