Maryland Black Bears gearing up for inaugural junior hockey season

Easton native Max Newnam is following his dream and, just like when he was growing up looking for the nearest ice rinks, it’s taking him across the Bay Bridge.

The 19-year-old hockey player has what he describes as the best possible scenario: A chance to play junior hockey right in his backyard.

The Maryland Black Bears are the state’s first junior hockey league team, set to play their inaugural North American Hockey League season at Odenton’s Piney Orchard Ice Arena in September. They will compete in the 24-team league’s Eastern Division and play a 60-game schedule that runs through April.

For Newnam, a forward who signed a tender agreement with the Black Bears, the goal of earning a scholarship to play college hockey is now closer to home.

“I want to play college hockey one day and the first step would be to play juniors this year,” he said. “If everything goes as planned, I make the team and play a strong role. Really, I’m taking it one day at a time, trying to get getting bigger, stronger and faster. Then eventually, hopefully this season or next, I’ll get some looks and commit to college and get a scholarship and go from there.”

Since their membership application was approved by the league in April, it has been full speed ahead for the Black Bears organization.

Owned by Black Bear Sports Group, Inc., they hired Clint Mylymok as head coach and general manager in May, and constructing a roster immediately followed. The Black Bears signed players through tender agreements, the annual NAHL draft in June and also picked up some experienced NAHL players by trading tender rights. They also hosted several open tryout camps.

This week, from Thursday through Sunday, they will conduct their main team camp at Rockville Ice Arena to finalize a roster that will take on the New Jersey Titans in their first game, Sept. 14 at Piney Orchard.

The NAHL, in its 43rd season, is the only Tier II junior league sanctioned by USA Hockey. Among the notable alumni are NHL greats Pat LaFontaine, Mike Modano and Doug Weight. In last month’s NHL draft, nine NAHL players were selected, with the Washington Capitals taking goalie Mitchell Gibson in the fourth round.

The Black Bears will have players (ages 17 to 20) from all over the United States, Canada and Europe.

Mylymok, who spent the past four years as coach and general manager of the Notre Dame Hounds in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, is leaving no stone unturned to make the most of the franchise’s first season.

“You don’t get many opportunities to do something like this, so it’s exciting, it’s challenging, there’s stress, there’s nerves, there’s everything that goes with building something brand new. It’s everything,” he said.

With the Capitals coming off their first Stanley Cup win, the timing couldn’t be better to bring more hockey in the area, and the Black Bears are hoping to capitalize on the frenzy.

Piney Orchard, formerly the Capitals’ practice facility, can hold up to 1,000 fans, and the team hopes to consistently pack the place. While the main draw will be checking out some of the top junior league hockey players in the country — the Black Bears also will have players from Canada and Europe — the team hopes several promotional nights will help draw fans and keep them supporting the team.

“We understand we have to offer fans a different experience other than just hockey, so we planning out different things at each home game to drive people in the stands and keep them entertained,” said Ryan Scott, vice president of the Black Bear Sports Group.

Mylymok has already challenged some of the team’s veteran players to make the most of a unique opportunity. In hockey, there’s traditions that help lay a team’s foundation. He’ll lean on the more experienced players to find a pregame warmup routine, pick a team song after wins and so much more to create a template that will remain in the years to come.

Cameron Teamor, a 20-year-old defenseman from South Bend, Ind., who played two seasons with the Brookings Blizzard, is eager to take on the responsibility when he comes to Maryland for the first time.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “To be part of a first team and to start a tradition for the future in the Black Bear organization is awesome. Hopefully we can start it off by doing things the right way. Just thinking about getting with some of the older guys and leaders that have been in the league for a couple years — bringing what they have from their teams, me bringing what I have from my old team and also some things that haven’t been done before — that will all be pretty cool.”

glenn.graham@baltsun.com

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