Last winter, the Maine Mariners averaged 2,685 fans for home games at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Arena officials say they have been in discussion with the state about easing limits on indoor gatherings, currently limited to 100 people. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Maine Mariners announced an optimistic plan last week to have a 62-game pro hockey season this winter, starting on Jan. 15.

But it all hinges on having spectators for the 31 home games at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Maine currently limits indoor gatherings to a maximum of 100 people.

“No fans in the stands is pretty much a non-starter for us,” said Adam Goldberg, the Mariners’ vice president of business operations. “Based on the business model of the ECHL, everyone needs to have fans in the stands.”

The arena, which is owned by Cumberland County and managed by Spectracor, has a 6,700 seating capacity for hockey. The Mariners averaged 2,685 fans last season, losing their final three home games after the ECHL ceased operations because of the pandemic on March 15. The team’s average home attendance was 2,998 during its inaugural season in 2018-19.

“As you can imagine, 100 people doesn’t really cut it for a 6,000-seat arena, particularly when we have a minor league hockey team dependent on revenue from ticket sales,” said Jim Gailey, the Cumberland County manager. “We also understand safety. By no means are we asking to sit 6,000 in that building or even half that.”

On Friday the ECHL announced a two-pronged opening for the 2020-21 season. Half of its 26 teams will begin play Dec. 11. They are located primarily in the Southeast, and across the middle of the United States. One team, the Atlanta Gladiators, has decided to suspend operations for the season because of the pandemic.

The other 12 teams, including all of the clubs in the Northern Division with the Mariners, are scheduled to start Jan. 15, with training camps set to begin Dec. 31.

“There are a lot of states with tighter restrictions and that’s how the whole country is dealing with it, working with each state’s own regulations, rules and guidelines,” said Riley Armstrong, the Mariners head coach and assistant general manager. “I hope the people in Maine continue to take care of each other and protect each other and allow the governor to loosen the restrictions.”

One issue the Mariners do not have to deal with is the question of whether they can even stage games. On Tuesday, Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, clarified that the state’s community sports guidelines do not apply to professional sports. Last week, DHHS sent a strongly worded letter to the Maine Amateur Hockey Association, reminding them that indoor ice hockey games are not recommended for youth and adult league games.

Melanie Henkes, the general manager of the Cross Insurance Arena, and Gailey said they have reached out to the Department of Economic and Community Development and recently with DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew to begin the process of re-opening the CIA to the public. The arena has not hosted any event since the last Mariners’ game on March 10.

Arena management, working with the Mariners, is formalizing a detailed reopening plan to present to the state, that addresses seating capacities for hockey and other events.

“I respect how the state has navigated (the pandemic) and I think the results speak in our low numbers compared to almost any other state,” Henkes said. “What we will do is take all the rules that the CDC is bringing to the table and present a plan of here’s how we’re implementing it all into the building.”

Travel will be another challenge to overcome for the Mariners.

Two of the ECHL’s North Division teams are located in Canada – the Brampton Beast in Ontario and the Newfoundland Growlers. Travel anywhere except the exempted states of Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts currently requires people to either quarantine for 14 days or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

The only ECHL teams located in states exempt from Maine’s rules are the Worcester (Massachusetts) Railers and the Adirondack Thunder (Glens Falls, New York).

“I feel like if all of our division teams are able to have home games, that would make our season that much more viable,” Goldberg said. “If they weren’t, it would make it difficult because then we would have to travel to places like Kalamazoo (Michigan) on a regular basis.”

The Mariners’ have signed or re-signed 14 players. Dillan Fox, 29, was the first player inked for 2020-21, committing to his third season in Portland.

“There’s just a lot of doubt. You want good news but the good news you get is very tentative,” Fox said, adding the Mariners’ organization has communicated well with its players throughout the pandemic.

“Sometimes it’s not great news but at least they’re keeping you updated and in times like this, they’ve been very clear they want to play and they want to bring hockey back,” Fox said.

A canceled season would hinder player development and might cause some early retirements, particularly at the ECHL level where minimum weekly salaries range from $490 to $530, said Ted Hart, 24, a second-year forward from Cumberland.

“I love playing hockey right now and I want to keep playing hockey and I’m at an age and shape now where I feel I’ll be the best I can be,” Hart said. “But I don’t want to sit idle and not be progressing either as a hockey player or as a person. I think I would stick it out for another season but a lot of guys would be forced to retire.”

Armstrong said every player who has signed has agreed to new safety rules designed to protect the players on and off the ice.

“I feel with the restrictions we have on our team, that will limit positive cases as well,” Armstrong said. “Everybody has to buy in to making it work. There will be no bar visits, no big gatherings. We’re going to limit the restaurants that players can go to and eat, so we know where the players go. And we made it aware to our players that if they don’t want to follow our rules, then there’s not going to be a spot for them on our team.”


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