Gary Conn was a freshman in 1977 the first year the University of Maine had a hockey team.
Twenty years later, the former Division I All-American center who never made it to the National Hockey League is still second among the Bears’ all-time leaders in goals with 107 and third among their all-time point leaders with 221.
Yet what guided Conn to the life he enjoys now with his wife and 8-year-old daughter in Lynn, Mass., was not his achievements through two years of Division II hockey and two in Division I, but the examples set by his mentors at Maine.
Today Conn is a special education teacher and hockey coach at Lynn Alternative High School. The work is exhausting and demanding, but it’s what Conn has wanted to do since he was in high school.
“I always knew I wanted to teach,” Conn said. “I’m very happy with my decision. I work with behavioral students, kids that can’t make it in a regular high school for one reason or another. They come from tough backgrounds.”
UMaine physical education professor Walt Abbott, former education professor Glen Reif, and Conn’s old hockey coach Jack Semler were among the leaders who showed Conn how to teach by example.
“Walt I more or less knew. I don’t know that I took a class with him. He was just always there to give advice,” Conn said. “And Jack Semler, he taught us how to treat people. Sometimes, when I get angry, I try to think of how Jack handled situations. Whenever I had a problem, he was always there to listen. I appreciated that.
“The older I get, the hockey is very important, but those are the things I remember more than anything.”
Today, when Conn recalls his years playing at Maine, the moments that come instantly to mind are when he scored the first goal of Maine’s first game its first season, when he earned All-American honors, and when Maine battled back in a gritty regular season game to beat Boston University.
“The biggest thrill as a player was up there my [junior] year, we were losing to B.U. [6-1 in the second period],” the former center said. “We came back 8-7. It was incredible. It was a strong comeback. The team stuck together.”
After Conn graduated in 1981, he signed a contract with the New York Rangers and played on their American Hockey League affiliate. He then signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins and played for their minor league team in Baltimore.
Conn never made it to the NHL, but he moved on to a bigger goal. In 1984, Conn moved back to Marblehead, Mass., and got into coaching and teaching.
Meanwhile, it took a decade after he set his two school marks before both fell.
Conn’s weathered records fell in the 1992 Hockey East semifinal game when the future St. Louis Blues player Scott Pellerin became the all-time leading scorer and future Boston Bruin Jean-Yves Roy became the all-time leading goal scorer.
Conn still follows the Black Bears. And he still feels a part of a larger UMaine team even if his hockey days are long gone.
“I’m so proud to be a part of Maine. I got a Christmas cardUMaine team,” Conn said. “I’ve got to say Shawn does a great job keeping the alumni involved. He makes you feel like you’re a part of it. He doesn’t let it die.”
Despite Maine’s slow 9-7-3 start, Conn remains impressed with the Black Bears. He said he expects to see Maine at the Final Four in Boston, eventhough the Bears fell out of the Top 10 ranking in the first half of the season.
“I certainly wouldn’t count Shawn Walsh out of anything,” Conn said. “He’s the type of guy that right about now wants to peak. He is right where he wants to be. I already have my tickets. That is how confident I am. If Maine is not in it, I’m selling them.”