Maine hockey has been around for 36 years, and this was a program at times that saw early success, then some struggles for a half a decade, followed by its rise to prominence.
The Maine Black Bears team formed a Division I team in 1977, to an Alfond Arena that held about 3,800 in capacity. Michael Quirk (Class of ’82) was a freshman during Maine’s second year. “I had an all-sports pass and seats at the Alfond for students were first come, first serve. About a half dozen friends and myself would get in line about 90 minutes before game time … [We had] Great seats. Some of my other friends who would arrive later would stand behinds us at the rail since it was a rare occasion when the Alfond was not standing room only.” Even early on the fan base was there for this hockey team, especially since the football team was going through some struggles in the late 70’s into the early 80’s.
The Hockey team saw early success though they didn’t qualify for the tournament. Then in the early 80’s Maine saw a period of struggle. They only won 27 games over the next three seasons (1981-84), though they had some highlights in 1983-84 where they went 14-2 at home, problem was they couldn’t win away from the Alfond. My father Tom Quirk (Class of ’85) attended UMaine starting in the fall of 1981. “It was a big part of the social scene. We’d meet up with people at the games, then go to the parties afterward. The crowds were good, for the capacity at the time.” He goes on to say, “When I was there, it wasn’t hard to get tickets. The crowds were good, the place was rocking, very loud.”
Shawn Walsh became the new head coach in 1984, they were initial struggles and Maine was concerned about the students showing up at the games. My dad said, “Shawn Walsh and a player would come to the dorms. One time me and my buddies were in the common room (in Hancock Hall) and Walsh came in, told us about the game, and answered some of our questions afterward.” This is part of the legend of Shawn Walsh, who’d also visit dining halls and frat houses to get the students to come. It was successful, after two years of struggle, Maine finally began to contend including in 1987 when Maine qualified for their first NCAA tournament.
Right around the late 80’s, Dan Quirk (class of ’93) attended UMaine in 1989 where he got the see the best of Maine Hockey. “[The place was] Jam packed…especially after 89-90. [The Alfond was] Loud and better once the Alfond was expanded (1992).” The Black Bears were contending and part of the national picture in the 90’s and because of the popularity of Alfond Arena, they expanded by building the grandstand seats on the east and west sides of the arena.
My dad was telling me about games in the 90’s, “It wasn’t easy to get tickets back then, it took work to get tickets. Sometimes it took knowing people just to get seats.” Despite a rocky time in the mid-90’s after minor recruiting violations gave way to losing seasons, the fans were still coming to the games. They would continue to show up after Maine won their second championship in 1999.
In the 2001 Shawn Walsh passed away from cancer and Tim Whitehead took over. These were big shoes to fill and despite early success, the team faltered quickly and attendance began to dip. But students were still attending games, my colleague in the sports department Cody Beckett talked about his first few years when Maine had stars like Gustav Nyquist on the team. He talked about how students had to get in line hours ahead of time as it was jam packed in the student section.
My memory as a Maine fan really spans over one year, my freshman year. I got involved with college radio my sophomore year, so I didn’t attend too many games last year. My first year, the team was winning, so students and the crowds were great. When Maine hosted a Hockey East playoff series, Game 3 had a great crowd. I got in line over 2 hours before the game and I was farther down the line than I normally was when I went to games.
Overall the fans have always been there, it’s just the product on the ice hasn’t always made it worth it to the people. But the team is making improvements and the crowds are flocking again. We’ll see if this team can stay relevant, and have the fannies in the seat to see it.