Do you remember the NHL labor lockout of 2004-05? It resulted in an entire NHL season not happening. No Stanley Cup was awarded in 2005, and that hadn’t happened since 1919, when the series between the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans was canceled after the fifth game because of the raging flu epidemic.
Maybe in a few years, fans of the University of Maine men’s hockey team will remember that 2004-05 lockout as the catalyst for the Black Bears newfound glory.
This week, Ben Barr was introduced as the new men’s hockey coach at Maine. Barr’s coaching journey began in part because of that lockout. Barr graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the spring of 2004, and like most college hockey players, thought about testing his skating legs as a professional.
The lockout disrupted the entire professional hockey food chain. NHL players looking to stay sharp in case the lockout ended and their season started claimed roster spots in lower leagues. That pushed players who would normally be on AHL rosters to the ECHL, and ECHL players to still lower leagues, or Europe.
“I was not probably going to play in the NHL. I was honest enough with myself to realize that probably wasn’t going to be the case,” Barr said in a Zoom call with media Wednesday afternoon. “That (lockout) filtered down to all the leagues. That decision was kind of made for me, to be honest. It was a tough year to graduate.”
Over the last 16 years, Barr worked and made himself into one of the top assistant coaches in college hockey. Now, he gets his shot to run his own program. Here is the biggest thing Maine fans need to know about Barr. Every team that he’s worked with as an assistant coach saw improvement, often dramatic improvement. Players Barr recruited to Union, Providence and, just last month UMass, all won national championships.
After the untimely death of coach Dennis “Red” Gendron on April 9, there was a segment of the Black Bear fan base that wanted and expected Maine to hire another coach with deep ties to the school. The late Shawn Walsh was succeeded by Tim Whitehead, one of his former assistant coaches. Whitehead was followed by Gendron, another former Walsh assistant. There was no shortage of qualified candidates with ties to the Black Bears. Jim Montgomey, who coached Denver to an NCAA title before moving on to the NHL; Greg Moore, now the head coach of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies; and Jack Capuano, a former NHL coach who recently was pegged to coach the U.S. National Team.
Any of them would have been a fine choice, but none of them had much interest in the job. In the long run, that is a good thing. Ben Guite would have been the safe pick. The top assistant coach under Gendron and a member of the 1999 national championship team, a transition into the Guite era would have been more seamless.
Maine doesn’t need seamless right now. It needs a shakeup. It needs someone like Walsh, who was 29 when he coached his first game with the Black Bears in 1984.
Memories of the Black Bears glory days should be cherished. Watch highlights from the 1993 and 1999 national championship team over and over. At the same time, realize those glory days are ancient history now. To reclaim a spot in the upper echelon of college hockey, Maine had to break from the past. Maine had to take a chance on a coach like Barr, a younger coach (Barr is 39) who has proven he can recruit talented players and build something.
It’s been nine years since Maine’s last trip to the NCAA tournament. The Black Bear tradition is gathering dust. It’s time to see if Barr, who correctly assessed how he could stay in hockey 17 years ago when he chose the coaching path, is the coach. A season in which nobody raised the Stanley Cup might eventually be the first chapter in the next great Black Bears hockey story.