The sudden and unexpected departure last month of the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates left a hockey void in the state’s largest city.
University of Maine athletics seems to sense that Portland fans, now starved for some high-level hockey, would jump at the chance to watch the Black Bears.
UMaine hopes to capitalize on that dynamic, and southern Maine’s already solid Black Bear hockey fan base, by staging three games next season at the Cross Insurance Arena. Fans will be treated to two high-profile opponents as UMaine takes on Boston College and Notre Dame, along with Brown.
Dates for the contests have not been announced.
The knee-jerk reaction of UMaine fans from Greater Bangor might be that they are having home games taken away from them. There’s no denying that is true.
Alfond Arena regulars will still have the chance to see BC and Notre Dame at home, for one game of each two-game series. Most, understandably, won’t make the two-hour trek to Portland, especially given the team’s lackluster play of late.
Even so, season-ticket packages are designed so fans can purchase tickets for all 18 “home” games, or only the 15 contests on campus at Alfond Arena.
The reality is, a small inconvenience for “the best fans in college hockey” is a needed marketing policy for UMaine athletics.
Based on past history and future aspirations, UMaine must continue to maintain a hockey presence in Portland.
For starters, the Black Bears have enjoyed considerable success there. UMaine boasts a 12-2-5 record at the CIC (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center) in its last 19 games spanning many years.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy explanation for that stat, other than UMaine has generally had good teams. The Black Bears went 6-7-3 last season at Alfond Arena).
The program’s more recent struggles are reflected in the team’s 0-2-2 mark in Portland since the end of the 2012-2013 season.
Another plus is that UMaine hockey has generally drawn very well in Portland, averaging 5,047 fans in four games over the last two winters. Those numbers took a hit from a snowstorm that resulted in a crowd of 3,809 at last December’s nonleague game against New Hampshire.
Those two teams played in front of 6,183 fans in the Black Bears’ only Portland game during 2014-2015.
Last season, attendance at the three Portland events averaged 4,668 fans. That compares to 3,921 for games at Alfond Arena, which was a six-percent drop from the previous season.
However, UMaine’s desire to play hockey in Portland doesn’t appear to be based on financial rewards — at least not the short-term variety. With the attendance there surpassing that of games in Orono by an average of only 747 per contest last season, the athletic department likely isn’t going to generate much profit after paying for travel, accommodations and meals, along with the CIC facility rental fee.
The final and most important reasons for having a significant presence in Portland is the future. UMaine benefits from making its athletic events accessible to southern Maine fans through a showing of good will, and probably generates some revenue from licensed Black Bear apparel and other souvenirs.
Ultimately, all these efforts most certainly are laying the groundwork to help UMaine make a push toward hosting an NCAA Regional.
UMaine last October revealed that it plans to submit a bid to serve as an NCAA host for a future tournament. The earliest that could happen would be at the conclusion of the 2017-2018 season.
The 2016-17 regionals will be held in Providence, Rhode Island, Manchester, New Hampshire, Cincinnati and Fargo, North Dakota. The Frozen Four will be in Chicago.
Last October, in another warm-up for a possible NCAA bid, UMaine was the host for the Ice Breaker Tournament in Portland. That event was deemed a success after attracting 10,194 fans for the two-day event.
Only the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee knows whether UMaine’s efforts will yield a regional for Portland during the next four years.
All the Black Bears can do now to further enhance their support — whether in and around Orono, in Greater Portland, or with the NCAA selection committee — is to get back to its former winning ways.
This post was corrected to reflect that UMaine fans will have the chance to see both Boston College and Notre Dame at Alfond Arena, as each team is scheduled to play once in Orono in addition to the Portland contests.