University of Maine hockey fans are known for being among the most loyal college hockey fans in the country. After all, the pregame introductions at Alfond Arena often dub the “old girl,” as coach Red Gendron often calls it, as the “home of college hockey’s greatest fans.”
UMaine fans have also been known for traveling in droves over the years, regardless of the team’s record. Heck, had it not been for a Les Mills training the weekend of the Kendall Hockey Classic in Alaska in 2014, my wife and I would have considered a journey to The Last Frontier.
This season, with three “home” games scheduled to be played at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, UMaine fans in the Bangor area may be hitting the road in droves to see their Black Bears this season.
For the first time in program history, three regular-season games will be played in Portland. The slate includes a non-conference contest against Brown of the ECAC, and two Hockey East contests against longtime rival Boston College, and Notre Dame, which is leaving Hockey East for the Big Ten after the 2016-17 season. While the Black Bears did play three games in Portland last season, two were part of the IceBreaker tournament, which traditionally opens the college hockey season.
If you’re a Bangor-area fan worried that you won’t get to see BC and Notre Dame games at the Alfond, have no fear. Both those games are two-game series, with one game to be played in Orono and the other in Portland. While the dates have not been determined, it would make sense for the second game of each series to be played in Portland.
As is the case with this scenario, there are pros and cons to the Black Bears playing three games in Portland.
One major plus is the Black Bears’ push to get an NCAA Regional in the city, as early as the 2017-18 season. Should that happen, UMaine would be the host, and if the Black Bears were to make the NCAA Tournament, they would be placed in their home regional. It would be an obvious box office smash at the Cross Arena, and Portland’s restaurants, hotels and nightlife would reap the economic benefits of having fans from four college hockey schools descend on the city.
Additionally, the Black Bears do have a fanbase in the southern part of the state. Given Maine’s unpredictable weather during hockey season, it’s a challenge for these folks to get up to the Alfond. Now that the AHL’s Portland Pirates have dropped anchor and sailed their ship west to Springfield, Massachusetts, the Cross Arena has lost its longtime hockey tenant. There’s no doubt Portland-area fans will turn out in droves for all three of these games. The Black Bears have averaged just over 5,000 fans per game over four Portland contests the last two seasons, which included two games with border rival New Hampshire.
Boston College has always been a longtime UMaine rival, and playing in the Pine Tree State has been a house of horrors as of late for the Eagles, whose last win at UMaine came during the 2012-13 season. While Notre Dame’s hockey program isn’t nearly as fabled as its football team, the Fighting Irish are still a brand name, and with their move to the Big 10, this could be the last time we see them in Maine for quite some time. I won’t be shocked if both of those games sell out.
Obviously, fans and season ticket holders in the Bangor area and points north and east may not be too happy. Living 150 miles from Portland, I can certainly sympathize with them. Gas, meals, and potentially staying in a hotel are not cheap. I could understand if some of the Alfond faithful also won’t be pleased about these games being taken from one of college hockey’s greatest venues. However, season ticket holders can elect to buy a package that does not include the Portland contests.
I can certainly see and respect both sides of the equation. Not wanting to travel and having games taken away from Alfond Arena is understandable. But UMaine is also this state’s lone Division I athletic institution, and people in the southern part of the state support the program just as much as fans in the Bangor area. All it takes is one game for a young child to become hooked on this program, and the game in general. My first hockey game came at the height of the 42-1-2 national championship season, arguably one of the best in the history of all of college sports.
The bottom line is this: Last season, UMaine averaged only 3,923 fans at Alfond Arena last season as the team won just eight games, its lowest average turnout in a quarter-century. UMaine hockey will always have its diehards, but winning games puts fans in the seats. This is an important year for the Black Bears, with Gendron, entering his fourth season, having just signed a two-year contract extension last winter. Playing games in the state’s largest city will boost revenue.
While this is a small inconvenience for some, I have no doubt a lot of “college hockey’s greatest fans” will head to Portland in support of their team. If we can travel to Alaska, we can hit the Turnpike a few times.