Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories profiling some of the finalists for the 2012 Hobey Baker Award.
Spencer Abbott’s hockey game has gone through adjustments before.
A late growth spurt temporarily slowed his progress on the age-group level, but may have helped create in Abbott awareness that climbing through the ranks was possible with constant commitment.
Abbott’s game has steadily grown since the time he committed to Maine as a modestly recruited forward out of Hamilton, Ontario.
“When I was younger, I was pretty good,” Abbott said. “Everyone was the same size when we were 8, 9 or 10.
“I didn’t really grow until I was about 15. Guys were bigger and I wasn’t as much of an impact player at Triple-A when I was 14 or 15. My last year of Triple-A, when I was 16, was my best.”
Similarly, Abbott has made sure his last year as a college player has been his best.
Abbott worked his way into the Maine lineup as a freshman, nearly doubled his production as a sophomore, then jumped from sixth to second on the Black Bears in scoring during his junior season.
The climb continued this season, resulting in Abbott not only leading Maine, but the entire nation in scoring.
There was both celebration and concern for Abbott last weekend at the Hockey East Championship.
When teams gathered in Massachusetts Thursday, the night before the semifinals, Abbott was named Hockey East Player of the Year at the annual awards banquet. It was also revealed during a video presentation that Abbott was one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award as the top college hockey player in the country.
Abbott suffered an undisclosed injury late in Maine’s 5-3 semifinal win over Boston University Friday night and did not play in a 4-1 loss to Boston College in Saturday’s final.
While Abbott put in the work to assure an increased impact this season as an assistant captain at Maine, he said he did not think about situations like leading the nation in scoring.
“I never expected that to happen,” Abbott said. “It’s a credit to my linemates; I’ve been playing alongside Brian Flynn and Joey Diamond.”
Flynn joined Abbott as first-team Hockey East all-stars while Diamond was a second-team choice.
Their work together made Abbott, Flynn and Diamond the top three scorers in Hockey East, a feat that has been accomplished only twice before. Craig Janney, Dan Shea and Kevin Stevens did it for Boston College in 1986-87 and Paul Kariya, Jim Montgomery and Cal Ingraham did it for Maine in 1992-93.
Abbott said he first became aware of the possibility of playing college hockey in the United States when he moved to the Canadian junior level with the Hamilton Red Wings as a 16-year-old.
“That’s when the college offers started coming in,” Abbott said. “My first year of juniors, I started getting a little interest.”
Abbott was rookie of the year with the Red Wings when he scored 32 goals and 43 assists in his first season. The next season, 2007-08, he led the team with 42 goals and 83 points.
Having already been to Northeastern, Abbott had more recruiting visits scheduled after his stop at Maine. They became unnecessary when he saw the campus and a game in Orono and decided to commit to the Black Bears.
“Being from Canada, I hadn’t seen many college hockey games so I didn’t really know what it entailed,” Abbott said. “I heard it was tough to play as a freshman, but I thought I had a decent year my first year and every year I’ve learned more.”
During his time at Maine, Abbott said he has learned to think more about scoring himself rather than just setting up teammates.
“I’m shooting the puck more,” he said. “I had always been a playmaker growing up.
“My first thought was to move the puck rather than shoot it.”
As he moves around to different spots on the power play, Abbott still often finds himself in that role. Otherwise, he is more comfortable looking for goals.
In 38 games, he has 20 goals and 41 assists while going plus-16, second-best on the team.
The increased production is not an accident.
Abbott, now listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, is used to spending summers trying to add a few pounds of muscle. Last summer, that work was put in with Gary Roberts, a 400-plus goal scorer in his NHL career who trains players in the Toronto area.
The desired weight and strength was added, translating to an improvement in Abbott’s game.
“It’s harder to push me off the puck now,” he said.
With Abbott leading the way, Maine has proceeded to the NCAA tournament. The Black Bears learned Sunday that they are the third seed in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., and will play defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth at 7:30 p.m. EDT Saturday. Boston College and Air Force are also in the regional.
Whether Abbott will be physically ready to be in the Black Bears lineup remains to be seen. He went down after being hit in the head. The specifics of the injury were not revealed by Maine, only that coach Tim Whitehead acknowledged the possibility Abbott may not be ready for the NCAA tournament opener.
“We just need to take that day by day,” Whitehead told the media in his postgame news conference Saturday. “With that type of injury, it takes some time and hopefully he’s well.”
The Black Bears played without Abbott for the first time this season in the loss to Boston College.
“We hope he’s back, but at the same time, this is an experience for us and we know what we’ve got to do if he’s not back with us,” Whitehead said.