At approximately 5 p.m. Thursday, Harold Westerman could stand it no longer.
He picked up the phone in his Vero Beach, Fla., home and dialed the number of his longtime friend, Bill Wells, in Orono.
“Who won?” Westerman asked.
“There’s still half a minute to go in regulation and it’s tied,” Wells answered.
“I couldn’t stand it,” Westerman said later. “I told Bill to go back to the TV. I told him, `don’t call me unless we win.’ ”
When his phone rang a few minutes later, Westerman’s heart leaped. Could it be the University of Maine hockey program which he had helped get off the ground nearly two decades earlier was now one game away from winning a national championship?
“Bill didn’t tell me they won right away,” said Westerman, who retired from Maine in 1982 after 33 years as a Black Bear coach and athletic director. “He said, `Maine should have won it in regulation.’ When he told me they had won, I said, `Bill, you sweetheart.’ ”
Yes, Westerman is a Michigan gradute (Class of ’42). No, he was not torn in his allegiance Thursday because his alma mater was squaring off in a NCAA hockey semifinal against the school to which he devoted his professional life.
“I wanted Maine to win, all the way,” Westerman said, noting the game was not broadcast near his home. “Michigan would have been second best. But I was pulling for Maine.”
Pulling for Maine hockey is something Westerman began doing back in the mid-1970s, when the program was still a dream shared by Westerman and a handful of UM backers, including the late Howard Neville, former UM president.
“I remember we did a lot of national surveys when we were in the planning stages. Everything pointed to Maine being a natural. I don’t have to tell you Harold Alfond was the moving force that put it over the hill,” Westerman said, referring to the philanthropist whose donation resulted in the construction of Maine’s Alfond Arena.
It was Westerman who began the recruiting process for the first Maine team of 1977-78, at the same time he was hunting for a coach.
“We told those kids they would be a part of building something,” Westerman recalled, when asked what his recruiting pitch had been.
Soon after hiring Jack Semler as Maine’s first modern hockey coach, Westerman recalls a conversation the two had while walking through the brand new Alfond Arena locker room.
“I said, `Some day we’ll have the finest players in the U.S. right here in this locker room.’ I don’t know if he believed me, but I remember Jack said, `That would be great.’ ”
In the wake of Maine’s 4-3 overtime win over Michigan in Milwaukee, and with one game left to negotiate for Maine’s first national title in the modern era, Westerman’s words of 16 years ago are already prophecy.
“This is such a great feeling. Now, they’ve got a shot at it. I know Shawn (Walsh) will have them ready,” he said.
And will Westerman be there, in Milwaukee, for Saturday’s final?
“I have a ticket. I may scoot out. I tell you, if they win, my 33 years at Maine would be all wrapped up in one game,” Westerman said.