Anniversaries of big moments are always a good time for reflection upon the great times in one’s life. Because, as those moments happen, it is difficult to understand how those moments end up affecting you for the rest of your life.
Such is my story of the 1992-93 Maine Black Bears. It was the very first major hockey team I got to watch in person on a regular basis. It gave my first chance to see hockey played by a raft of future NHL players. Not just those on the Black Bears, but also those on rival Hockey East and other teams that came through Orono that year and the years to follow. That team became an inspiration for me to not only become a hockey broadcaster, but also to reach for the highest levels, because if a hockey team assembled and playing in little Orono can be the best college hockey team ever, anyone from our state could do anything.
But, most importantly as it turned out, it began my mother’s understanding of the sport of hockey and why I loved it so much. And after a few years of convincing, she finally got on board with my dream of calling hockey games for a living. It became the most obvious way in which she showed me that she was and would always be my #1 fan, not only in my career, but in life. It drew us closer and continues to allow me to hang onto her and her memory, now five years after her death.
The story starts in Aroostook County.
Presque Isle to be exact. It was where I was born and raised for the first 11 years of my life. Mostly, I was raised by my mom, a single parent after she and my dad divorced right around the time I turned two-years-old in 1983. My first Maine Black Bear hockey experience came at the Northern Maine Forum (or just “The Forum” to locals), a community building at the Northern Maine Regional Fairgrounds that hosted craft and agricultural shows, concerts, and the Anah Temple Shrine Circus. Every November, it was the only polling place in the city. And every winter, it was, for many years, the only ice arena in the county.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shawn Walsh decided to start playing Blue/White games around the state to start expanding the reach of the team that had become a national powerhouse. They were intrasquad scrimmages played in late September before the real season started. And after the game was over, fans got to skate with the team.
It was around this time that my mom decided to switch careers and become a speech language pathologist, the field she ended up in until she retired. She began attending classes at the University of Maine-Presque Isle, beginning her undergrad from scratch. She hadn’t gotten a college degree after high school because the careers she’d had to that point didn’t require one. She could get the first two years done there but would have to finish bachelors and masters work elsewhere in the UMaine system. That would mean we’d have to move from the only home I’d ever known.
By the summer of 1992, the moment had come to figure out where our next home would be. My mom had two options: she could finish her bachelors in Orono or Farmington. The only place she could get the masters degree to become a practicing SLP was Orono. So, Orono was going to be the eventual destination no matter what.
Being the brash, entitled, and moody only child that I was, I was very against leaving Presque Isle. It was mostly out of fear, I would eventually realize, but I didn’t know that then. By the time my fifth-grade year started that September, my mom had decided Orono would be best, because it only meant moving me once.
To help convince me that I wouldn’t be miserable there, she enlisted the help of her cousin Don Stimpson, who was an administrator at UMaine at the time. He and his wife Rita had us down to their home in Orrington for Halloween weekend. While my mom looked for apartments all of that Saturday, Don took me watch the Black Bear football team play Delaware in the afternoon, which was followed by my first hockey game at Alfond Arena, an exhibition against New Brunswick which we watched from the skybox of Fred Hutchinson, the UMaine President at the time. Maine won 11-1 and I was officially hooked. The team was really good and I knew it, as much as an 11 year-old who constantly watched hockey could know, anyway.
My mom knew I loved hockey, but she didn’t get it herself. She wasn’t really a sports fan at all. The most she’d get into was basketball, as she would often go watch Presque Isle High School basketball games with me. I think it helped her connect to her own high school days, as she had been a cheerleader at PIHS in the early 60s. Her dad, my grandfather, played on the 1932 state championship team, which remains the only one in school history to win a boys state basketball title. She accompanied me to the Blue/White hockey games and even skated with me afterward, taking pictures of me with the guys I got autographs from.
She knew I loved it so much that she would let me watch Hockey Night in Canada at dinner on Saturday nights on a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears that only picked up WAGM, the one TV station in town, Maine Public Television, and the local CBC station out of Fredericton, New Brunswick. She would watch something else on our color TV that was hooked up to cable.
The move I was dreading finally took place in January of 1993, just prior to the start of the Spring Semester at UMaine. As a student, it meant my mom could get tickets for herself and any family members for free as part of enrollment at the school. This meant I could go to every game, but she would have to go with me.
The first Maine hockey game we attended together was on January 15, a Friday night non-conference game against Clarkson that ended in a 4-4 tie, only Maine’s second blemish of the season to that point, dropping their record to 18-0-2. I told my mom before that game that, even if she didn’t like hockey, she would likely enjoy watching Maine’s team, because it was so good. And she did enjoy that first game, asking questions of me and other fans around us as it went along, trying to understand what was going on. The next night, when Maine dominated and won 6-0, my mom really got into it. Almost as much as I did. When we made the short drive back to our apartment just off campus that night, she told me that she was beginning to like hockey. She expressed disappointment when I told her that they wouldn’t play at home again for another three weeks. I couldn’t believe it, but I was so happy!
We attended every single game at the Alfond for the rest of that season, with one exception: the one game they lost! We visited Presque Isle that day so I could see my old classmates and Nan, the name I called my grandmother. I still sort of watched the game on TV, though a scrambled picture, as the game was on NESN, which was a premium channel on cable at the time.
My mom and I both agreed before we made the trip up that we would leave early enough on Saturday to get back to Orono in time for the second game of the series against Boston University that night. The atmosphere in the building was electric. Like nothing I’d experienced in my young life as a sports fan. The unbeatable team had lost for the first time and they weren’t happy about it. They took it to the Terriers in the rematch and won 6-1. One of my big memories of the night was after Maine had scored a goal when the game was still close, Jim Montgomery waived his stick in a lasso motion above his head before the ensuing faceoff to get the crowd even more juiced. The place went nuts and Maine scored again not long after. It was as though everyone in the place knew something special was happening.
Until the end of that season, my mom was with me for every game, whether at the Alfond, watching the road games on television, or listening to the road games on the radio that were not televised. She was as into it as I was.
As both the Hockey East and NCAA tournaments went on, we could anticipate that something we would remember was unfolding. Even in the games where they were pushed, it was clear that Maine was still the best team out there, even to my mom.
After Lee Saunders (one of my mom’s favorite players) scored the overtime winner to put Maine into the national championship game, we both knew they would win the whole thing. I think my mom was more sure of it than I was. Even we they entered the third period down 4-2 to Lake Superior State, she knew they would win. She just knew. She assured me they’d find a way, even though my pessimistic side (which was full blown at that moment in life) was making me think they wouldn’t.
When they did come back and win, we were glued to the celebration that night and all of the local news coverage later that night and into the next day. My mom and I got to Alfond Arena as they were opening the doors for the championship rally, to happen as soon as they arrived back on campus. We waited with anticipation as the members of the band that hadn’t gotten to go Milwaukee psyched the crowd up by playing continuously until the moment finally came when our conquering heroes entered the building to probably the loudest cheer ever heard in that building (which is saying something, right?!).
My mom went on to get her bachelors degree in 1994 and her masters in 1996, graduating with honors in both cases. We went to pretty much every UMaine hockey game at Alfond together between 1993 and 1996, while we could get the free tickets. We were able to go a few more games at Alfond together as time went on. But, we still paid attention as much as we could with her working in Augusta and me being a very active student, athlete, actor, and speaker at Bangor High School.
When I became a student at UMaine myself in the fall of 2000, it was with a plan to go there for a year or two to save money and eventually finish a broadcast journalism degree at Arizona State so I could have a pedigree and education that would immediately give me a shot at big market jobs.
But, very shortly thereafter, I started in the sports department at WMEB, the student radio station on campus. In my third week on campus, I was told I would get to be one of the student play-by-play announcers for the hockey team. My first game was Shawn Walsh’s first game back from his cancer treatment on October 27, 2000, a 3-2 loss to Ohio State. My mother dutifully popped cassette tapes into the boombox in my childhood bedroom and began recording my broadcast so I could listen back to them and improve my call, while also giving myself resume tape material. She did it again the following night and for every single game I called on WMEB for the next five years, as I would call a season after I graduated because no current student was interesting in calling hockey (I couldn’t believe it either!) That included two Hockey East Championship games, one of which is still the longest game in program history, and two National Championship games.
This tradition continued when I came back to Maine in 2011 to call Portland Pirates games. Whenever the games were broadcast on TV, she put a tape into her VCR (yes, she still had a VCR) and record whenever the games were on. I think she did it more out of habit, but she was so excited whenever she could watch and hear me call games. And she watched lots of hockey without me. We would talk a lot about the Stanley Cup Playoffs every spring, even when I lived in Washington and was missing home practically the whole time.
When she got sick and died in October of 2012, it was, of course, one of the hardest things I’ve endured. She died the night of a Pirates game, in fact. I missed that game, as I was at her side, but when the Pirates played in Springfield, Massachusetts the next afternoon, I got up early and drove from my home in Lewiston and called the game. It’s what she wanted. I know that because, when she was hospitalized a week earlier in Bangor, I visited her on a Saturday morning with my future wife Nicole (it was the only time my mom and my wife ever met, unfortunately, but it was a visit I know all three of us treasure). When I walked in the room and she saw me, she was surprised but very happy because I hadn’t told her I was coming. When I told her I couldn’t stay all day because I had to call a hockey game in Manchester, New Hampshire that night, my mom, who never wanted to be a burden on me and knew how much I loved what I did, told me I should’ve have come to see her at all. I laughed and told her that that was silly. That day ended up being the last time I really got to have a conversation with her, as her condition worsened quickly after that.
My mom very much shaped me into the man I am today. There’s plenty of other major influences on my life, including my dad, my little brother, my uncle, my two aunts, Nan, and a great many teachers, professors, colleagues, and friends over the years. But none have been as influential of my mom. She taught me how to be kind, loving, and caring. She taught me to value things and show appreciation to those you love. I wish I would’ve showed her appreciation even more than I did. Because she deserved it.
Hockey is definitely not the only thing my mother and I shared in life. But, it was one of the most meaningful things for me. Helping convince my skeptical mom that the sport I loved but barely played and wanted to broadcast more than anything in my life growing up was both worthy of her time, attention, and love is a huge accomplishment for me. And I know that the 1992-93 Maine Black Bears 42-1-2 team is really what made my mom a hockey fan. It was the best possible hockey team to introduce a non-fan of the sport to the game. It’s influence on my own life will be with me forever.