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This wasn't a fall from grace, it was a plunge. After going 42-1-2 and winning the national championship two years ago with what some observers called the finest college hockey team ever, the Black Bears of Maine slipped to 6-29-1 last season—or 17-15-4 if, like most Bear fans, you can't bring yourself to count the games the team had to forfeit for using players who were academically ineligible under NCAA rules. Either way, wins and losses were the least of Maine's problems.
Before last season six players were lost to the U.S. national team; during the course of the season three others were found to be academically ineligible, resulting in the forfeiture of 14 games; Hockey East, the conference the Black Bears play in, barred them from its postseason tournament before the school obtained an injunction that allowed the team to compete; Shawn Walsh, the coach, was suspended by Maine for five games; athletic director Mike Ploszek and the school's NCAA compliance officer, Linwood Carville, were forced to walk the plank; and the NCAA launched a still-pending investigation.
From this 36-car pileup of a season has arisen the most surprising team of '94-95. At week's end the Black Bears were 26-2-6 and have spent much of the last three months ranked first in the nation even though this is Walsh's least talented team in seven or eight years. "The chemistry of this team is amazing," says senior defenseman Chris Imes, who returned from the Olympics to captain the Bears. It has to be, he adds, "because we don't have that many good individuals."
At a team meeting at the end of last season Walsh set what he thought was a reasonable goal for '94-95: a berth in the NCAA tournament. Afterward Imes took him aside and chewed him out. Recalls Walsh, "He said, 'What's this about just making it to the tournament? We're going to win it!' I told him I was just trying to be realistic."
The Black Bears have the nation's No. 2 power play and have allowed the fewest goals of any team. Recent indications that the NCAA is unlikely to complete its investigation in time to prevent the Black Bears from playing in the NCAAs in March have caused joy in Orono, but the school's transgressions don't sit well with some Hockey Hast rivals. Earlier this season Boston University coach Jack Parker complained to the Boston Globe that Maine had "put a black mark on the league. A very, very black mark."
Half the guests were swearing, half were crying. The party was off to a bad start.
So certain were the Colorado College Tigers that they would receive an invitation to last spring's NCAA tournament that, on the day the pairings were announced, they accepted a more modest invite. A local TV station asked them to come down to the studio for some pizza. The sight of the Tigers celebrating their first NCAA bid since 1978 would make great TV.
And great it was—if you're the kind of person who enjoys watching people pluck the wings off flies. When the list of the 12 invitees appeared on the screen, Colorado College was conspicuous by its absence. "A lot of jaws dropped," recalls junior center Jay McNeill. "I just remember looking at our seniors, and some of them were in tears." Despite a first-round loss to Michigan Tech in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament, the Tigers had won the WCHA regular season title and finished 23-11-5.