Is Portland a college hockey town?

That’s the question that will begin to be answered next weekend, when the University of Maine hosts the season-opening Ice Breaker tournament at the refurbished Cross Insurance Arena.

The stakes are significant for the Black Bears. Coach Red Gendron’s young team will get a baptism by ice against Michigan State at 8 p.m. Friday and No. 4-ranked North Dakota at 8 p.m. Saturday.

But the university’s athletic department may have the most to win or lose.

UMaine, which is spending more than $100,000 to stage the event, is banking on enough support from local fans on a busy tourist weekend to not only recoup its money, but to be able to sell the NCAA on bringing a regional playoff to the city in 2018.

Ticket sales have been lagging, and anxious university athletic officials are gearing up for a last-week push to reach the 5,000 threshold for each night, estimated as the break-even point. Drawing 6,000 fans each night to the Friday-Saturday doubleheaders was the initial “stretch goal,” said Seth Woodcock, UMaine’s associate athletic director for development. As of Sunday, just under 3,000 tickets had been sold for each night. The arena seats 6,700 for hockey games.

Tickets are priced at $49 for all four games if purchased at the box office.

“Everything’s a bit of a gamble here when you’re working on a shoestring budget. For a larger university like a Notre Dame or a Minnesota, this isn’t much of a gamble at all, it’s just something you do,” Woodcock said. “For us, there’s always a little bit of a risk when you stick your neck out a little bit on tournaments. You have to sell so many tickets to break even. We’re confident we’re going to get there.”

Gendron himself will be in Portland on Monday, making the rounds with the local media to get the word out.

His message: “We’re trying to rebuild some enthusiasm for this program among all of our fans. Being able to host an event like the Ice Breaker and show just how passionate Mainers are about their college hockey team is pretty cool.”

How deep that passion runs will soon be revealed. UMaine paid $75,000 to College Hockey Inc. to bring the tournament to Portland, eager to provide some great competition for its players, but also with an eye toward the larger prize – one of the four NCAA tournament regional sites in March 2018.

The school also paid $15,000 to each of the three teams that Gendron selected to join his Black Bears – Lake Superior State is the fourth participant, and will play the 4:30 p.m. games Friday and Saturday – plus 17 hotel rooms for three nights for the visiting schools, three more for College Hockey Inc. officials, and lodging for the game officials. UMaine also is required to put on a catered welcome reception for the teams and their guests Thursday, and provide each of the players, coaches and staff members with a commemorative gift not to exceed $350 apiece. Woodcock said that consists of shirts and other Maine-themed items, and the Friends of Maine Hockey booster group helped pay for them.

The arena is collecting a $2 facility fee per ticket. The university and the arena will split the rest of the ticket and concessions money.


UMaine also has enlisted the help of corporate sponsors, the primary one being Gorham Savings Bank, which will have its logo emblazoned at center ice.

That kind of support from the business community, as well as local fans, will be crucial when UMaine makes its official bid to the NCAA next summer.

Kristin Fasbender, director of championships and alliances for the NCAA, said evidence that the host city is backing the tournament bid is one factor her committee takes into consideration. Others include the size of the crowds at previous hockey games played at the venue, the proximity of an airport, the number of hotel rooms available, and the size and condition of the rink.

The NCAA is holding its East Coast regionals in Albany, New York, and Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2016. The 2017 sites were announced this week, with Providence, Rhode Island, and Manchester, New Hampshire, winning the bids. Those cities also hosted in 2015.

The selection committee prefers off-campus rinks with NHL-sized ice sheets, Fasbender said, but that is subject to change. There is always discussion about returning the regional sites to host schools, where the crowds are guaranteed to be larger but which puts the three other teams at a competitive disadvantage. Last year, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence averaged 7,114 for its two tournament sessions, buoyed by the presence of host school Providence College and nearby Boston College. The Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester mustered only 4,922 for its two-day average, since host school New Hampshire was not in the field.

The carrot for schools like UMaine bidding to host the tournament is that their team is guaranteed to play near home if it is one of the 16 selected for the tournament.

UMaine is able to bid for the first time now because two things happened. First, the 2013-14 renovations to what used to be called the Cumberland County Civic Center included four full locker rooms in the basement of the arena. That is a necessity for hosting NCAA regionals.

Also, the NCAA recently lowered the minimum seating capacity required for its host arenas, from 8,000 down to 5,000.


Fasbender said no one from her staff will be in Portland for the Ice Breaker, but that it certainly will be monitored, particularly for logistics like the size of the locker rooms and the quality of the ice.

She said she welcomes a bid from UMaine, noting that the six-member committee typically gets 10-12 applicants each year for its four regionals and is open to hearing from new venues.

“Any opportunity they have to host a collegiate event is great for them as they’re going through the process,” said Fasbender, who has been overseeing the hockey tournament since 1999. “That gives us the opportunity to get feedback from the teams that participate. It’s always good to have new buildings come on as we continue to look for ways to increase attendance at our sites.”

Woodcock, who has seen half-empty arenas at NCAA regionals such as last year’s in South Bend, Indiana, is confident that fans in Portland would provide a better showing. They’ll get a chance this week and again Dec. 29 when the Black Bears face New Hampshire at Cross Insurance Arena.

“It’s kind of a small family, the college hockey family, so the word will get out as far as how the Ice Breaker does,” Woodcock said. “This is one of those events I would hate for people to realize after the fact how great it was.”


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