PORTLAND, Maine — With the Portland Pirates’ unexpected move to Springfield, Massachusetts, hockey fans across Maine’s largest city are feeling famished.
“People are starving for hockey,” said former University of Maine defenseman Peter Metcalf, who lives in Portland and attended Pirates games. “It’s still a great hockey town and a great hockey state.”
Into this void steps UMaine, which will try this season to satisfy southern Maine fans’ hunger for hockey by playing three separate regular-season games at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland for the first time.
The Black Bears played the first game on Nov. 4, dropping a 6-1 Hockey East decision to then fifth-ranked Boston College. UMaine is scheduled to play Brown University on Saturday, Nov. 26, and then the University of Notre Dame on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
The enhanced schedule in southern Maine shows how Portland is not just a strong hockey market but an increasingly important place for UMaine athletics, which hopes to engage local alumni and showcase its brand to fans of hockey and other sports.
“Being the only Division I institution and athletic program in the state, we feel it’s important to bring our product throughout the state,” Seth Woodcock, UMaine’s senior associate athletic director for development, said. “There are a ton of folks in the Portland area who love the University of Maine.
“(But) we have a lot of respect for our fans in Orono,” he added.
In addition to the current slate, UMaine is bidding to host the NCAA regional hockey tournament in Portland and, with the Maine Sports Commission, will host the early rounds of the America East Women’s Basketball Championship in Portland in 2017 and 2018.
“Our student-athletes know we have fans all across the state, and they want to play in front of the fans in Portland,” UMaine director of athletics Karlton Creech said. “Our largest alumni pocket is in Greater Portland.”
In men’s hockey, UMaine is trying to maintain a presence that was established many years ago. Coach Red Gendron said he would like to play at least two games a year in Portland.
“It has been a great venue. We’ve been very well-supported,” Gendron said. “We get great crowds, and it is an opportunity for us to showcase our team in a part of the state where a lot of our alumni reside.”
Since the beginning of the 2002-2003 season, UMaine has averaged 5,532 fans in an arena that once had a capacity of 6,661 and now has a capacity of 6,183 following a $33 million renovation completed in 2014.
The Black Bears drew only 4,621 for their recent game against Boston College in Portland.
“At the same time, our fan base is in Orono — always has been and always will be,” Gendron said. “We’re simply trying to expand our visibility throughout the state.”
On campus, UMaine hockey has in recent years been battling a lag in attendance amid the team’s struggles on the ice. Last season, the Black Bears averaged 3,915 fans, including the Portland dates.
With no big-ticket guarantee games with which to bolster the athletic department coffers such as ones that exist in football and basketball, the men’s hockey program relies exclusively on its ability to put fans in the seats and sell merchandise.
So far this season, UMaine has played in front of an average of 4,575 spectators for its six contests at Alfond Arena. That includes three announced sellout crowds of 5,125.
“If they aren’t selling out (in Orono), why not come here and let these fans get excited about the program?” Metcalf, the former UMaine player, said.
Despite the trend of attracting good crowds in Portland and developing a closer relationship with southern Maine fans, playing there it isn’t a big money-maker for the athletics department.
“There isn’t a huge financial incentive to play down here,” said Woodcock, who explained that travel costs cut into the bottom line.
But there’s a big financial incentive for UMaine’s appearances for the Cross Insurance Arena, which had 38 open dates this season after the Pirates left town.
“We love to have them play here,” the arena’s general manager, Matt Herpich, said. “I’ve learned that a lot of UMaine grads move to Portland or even down to the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) area for jobs, and it’s an easy commute. I loved the Pirates, but if we can host a regional and bring teams here from across the country, that would be super cool.”
Boothbay’s Mark Smith said many Portland hockey fans preferred to watch UMaine rather than the Pirates.
“I love college hockey, and I like it better than the pros because it’s faster and there’s less holding,” Smith said.
Former Pirates season-ticket holder Terry Geyer of Buxton also has seen UMaine play at Alfond Arena and the Cross Insurance Arena.
“I’m a fan of both pro and college hockey, but I really like college hockey. There’s something about it. I feel like the players are more into the game,” Geyer said. “I loved the Ice Breaker Tournament. I hope they can have more weekends like that. Having a regional here would be wonderful.”
“UMaine needs a presence in the Portland market,” Sanford businessman Geoff Titherington said. “It’s a way to attract students to Orono, being a UMaine grad myself.”
The Nov. 4 game was the first UMaine contest attended by Gorham’s Alan Levesque.
“I’d like to get up there (Orono) but it’s 2½ hours one way,” Levesque said. “I got tickets through work, and my kids have already told me they want to go to the next one.”
Eye on a Regional
UMaine hopes its history of drawing large crowds in Portland will be instrumental in earning it a bid to host an NCAA regional. That decision is not expected until next spring and would be for a future tournament.
“It would be terrific,” Gendron said.
“How nice would it be for the fans if they just had to get to Portland for one?” he added.
A bid was submitted several years ago, but it was rejected. However, Gendron pointed to the comfort and amenities of the refurbished venue as other major selling points.
Boston College associate head coach Greg Brown has been to more than 10 NCAA regionals and believes Cross Insurance Arena would be a good fit for one.
“It’s a nice city. The rink’s in good shape. It would be a great spot,” Brown said.
BC senior defenseman Scott Savage has played in three consecutive regionals and agrees.
“A regional would thrive in that environment. The facility is great. It would be a perfect spot,” he said.
In the meantime, Portland-area fans plan to enjoy their limited local exposure to the UMaine hockey team.
“If they do it on a regular basis, they’ll build an even bigger following in this area. And it won’t feel so much like a road game for Maine,” Eric Turgeon, a former UMaine defenseman from Augusta who now lives in Falmouth, said.
Some would like to see more games in Portland.
“Hockey is really booming in southern Maine,” former Black Bear and NHL defenseman Eric Weinrich, who grew up in Gardiner and now calls Yarmouth home, said. “The more exposure for the program down here, the better.”