March 17, 2003
Postcard: Upset gives Maine a break

It was awfully strange for Tim Whitehead to make the four-hour drive from Orono to Boston for last weekend’s Hockey East banquet in a car, not a bus.

From his time at UMass Lowell through last year, his first as the Black Bears’ head coach, Whitehead has enjoyed a great deal of postseason success. He has almost always had his team traveling with him for tournament games.

But given that, and the long layoff his team faces before the NCAA Tournament, Whitehead was surprisingly upbeat as he drove past the dreary landscape of central Maine. The turn of events presents Whitehead and his staff with a terrific coaching challenge, and that’s something any good coach embraces.

“Obviously we’d rather be playing hockey this week,” he said via cell phone during the drive. “Every team in the country has had a tough stretch at some point or another this year, and unfortunately for us it happened when it did. Perhaps it was bound to happen. But hopefully this break will allow us to turn things back around.”

Maine’s first-round loss to Massachusetts, coupled with Hockey East’s tournament schedule quirk, leaves the Black Bears with 20 days between games. It’s kind of like a college football team heading to a bowl game – and about as welcome as spending Christmas in a place like Shreveport or Mobile. The first step in tackling a three-week layoff? Whitehead cancelled practices for the first third of the break.

“We knew we were getting a little burned out, both physically and mentally, even before the UMass series,” he said. “That was why we gave the team the week off. We needed the time to recharge.”

Whitehead also took the opportunity to hit the road recruiting, looking for what he calls “one last piece of the puzzle” in what he expects to be an outstanding class.

The Black Bears return to the ice this week, with a focus on reinforcing their systems and returning to the style of play that made them the nation’s No. 1 team for a good stretch of the season. That not-so-distant memory of success – coupled with his team’s need for a rest – helped explain Whitehead’s upbeat manner.

“We were able to climb to number one and stay there for a while,” he said. “Obviously we got a little burned out, but I think we know what we need to do to get back in that position.”

By Sunday, 14 days will have passed in a flash since the UMass series loss. Maine will learn its NCAA opponent, giving renewed focus to the upcoming week in practice. In addition, the Black Bears will know where they are headed for the tourney.

And this time, Whitehead knows he will have his team in tow.

– Nate Ewell

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