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Maine's hockey tradition carries on despite rebuilding season

Visiting the University of Maine's Alfond Arena should be on every hockey fan's bucket list.

The Maine Black Bears line up before Saturday's game at Alfond Arena
The Maine Black Bears line up before Saturday's game at Alfond Arena
UMaine Athletics

The University of Maine men's hockey team played its final home game at the Alfond Arena Saturday night. The Black Bears skated to a 4-4 tie with last place Northeastern, a night after downing those same Huskies 3-1.

No one will confuse the 2012-13 version of the Black Bears with the program's best. After all, Maine is the winner of national championships in 1993 and 1999 in addition to numerous Hockey East titles, Frozen Four appearances, along with two Hobey Baker award winners among their finest players. It is just one year removed from its most recent NCAA Tournament appearance.

Even in the midst of a down season, this weekend at Alfond Arena exemplified what college hockey is all about. With the students on spring break, the crowd was not what it usually is in Orono, but still almost 8,000 people turned out to watch the pride of Maine take the ice two last times this season.

The Naked Five, the group of students who run around the arena with no shirts on with "M-A-I-N-E" spelled on their chests after each goal, remained in the balcony overhanging the visitor's net for the first and third periods. One of the best bands in college hockey kept the home fans into the game. After the game, each senior addressed the crowd, thanking them for the support. Many of them said the crowd support, the atmosphere and tradition was one of the primary reasons they chose Maine.

The two games were not the best ever seen in this arena, but both games were exciting with doubt of the outcome in question each night. On Saturday with Northeastern needing more than a tie to remain in contention for a playoff spot, Huskies coach Jim Madigan pulled his goaltender late in the overtime in attempt to break the deadlock.

The home fans got to see some spectacular saves by junior goaltender Martin Ouellette who has emerged as a legitimate number one goaltender in his third season. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect made some highlight reel saves, especially in a wild second period.

Freshmen Devin Shore, Ryan Lomberg, Ben Hutton, Will Merchant and Steven Swavely are potentially building blocks for the program's future. It is certainly the best group of rookies since the class that brought in future NHL players Gustav Nyquist and Brian Flynn and AHL prospects such as Will O'Neill, Spencer Abbott and Ryan Hegarty.

Sophomore and Maine native Jake Rutt has developed into a very solid contributor for Tim Whitehead's club, especially in the last month. The Scarborough native had a four-game point streak until this weekend. He will be looked upon to carry the defense in the future along with freshman and Vancouver draft pick Ben Hutton.

The senior class that included Joey Diamond was saluted by the fans Saturday night. The Long Beach, NY native picked up his 100th career point Friday night and added two more assists Saturday. He joked to the crowd during his senior speech, "Thanks for having my back and always supporting me when the refs didn't." Fellow senior Kyle Beattie returned from concussion woes to pick up a goal and assist on the weekend.

Another senior who was honored was Tyler Walsh, the son of legendary former head coach Shawn Walsh. The younger Walsh has been a student-assistant coach for the past three seasons. Before his untimely passing due to cancer, the elder Walsh was responsible for guiding Maine to the forefront of the college hockey scene. He recruited Paul Kariya and his two brothers among many other future NHL players.

That is part of why college hockey in New England is so special. Fans get the opportunity to watch the best of the best play college hockey. No other sport in New England offers that. The next time you visit a rink for a college game, remember you're most likely getting a glimpse of at least one future NHLer.

The current version of the Black Bears will have one final chance to make its mark this weekend when they take on arch-rival New Hampshire at the Whittemore Center in Durham, NH. Maine is holding onto the 8th and final playoff spot in Hockey East by just one point over UMass-Amherst.

Hockey East teams are the winners of four of the past five national championships. It is the premier conference in the country and one of two leagues that will not lose any teams to the conference realignment that has affected all of college sports. As commissioner Joe Bertagna has said, the league is far better off with a rocking Alfond Arena and a Maine program that is playing for more than just the last playoff spot.

Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.