Ted Hart and his Maine Mariners teammates won’t be playing this season at Cross Insurance Arena, as the league announced Wednesday that its six North Division franchises have suspended operations because of the coronavirus pandemic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Maine Mariners will not play this season.

That announcement came Wednesday afternoon from the ECHL league offices. COVID-19 regulations that would significantly limit or even prohibit fans, worsening conditions of the pandemic, and significant travel restrictions caused all six teams in the North Division, including Maine, to suspend operations for the entire 2020-21 season, with the intent of restarting for 2021-22.

“We are saddened to have had to make this decision with our fellow division teams,” said Danny Briere, VP of Operations for the Mariners, in a press release.

“With the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the increasing rates in our region, and after consulting with local officials, we did not see a clear path toward hosting fans at Mariners games. … The future for this franchise is bright, and we are already making exciting plans for the 2021-22 season,” Briere added.

The other teams affected are the Adirondack (New York) Thunder, Brampton (Ontario) Beast, Newfoundland Growlers,  Reading (Pennsylvania) Royals and Worcester Nailers.

“You look at our division and we have two Canadian teams that can’t cross the border and Adirondack who can have zero fans, and then just recently Worcester’s rink has turned into a hospital overflow,” said Riley Armstrong, the Mariners’ head coach and assistant general manager. “That leaves Maine and Reading, and for us to travel every weekend without playing in our division, there’s a cost that comes with that as well.”

The decision to convert the DCU Center in Worcester to a 240-bed field hospital was made Friday.

Adam Goldberg, the Mariners’ vice president of business operations, said the Mariners couldn’t afford to play without their divisional partners. Typically, the Mariners bus to Adirondack, Reading and Worcester, as well as to Wheeling, West Virginia, and Norfolk, Virginia. The Norfolk franchise (along with Atlanta) previously announced it was suspending operations for this season.

“The business model as far as minor league hockey is concerned relies heavily on ticket sales, and if we had reduced capacity and then every away trip required a flight, it just wouldn’t have been feasible,” Goldberg said.

The 6,700-seat Cross Insurance Arena, which is owned by Cumberland County and managed by Spectracor, will also feel a financial hit. It hasn’t hosted a live event since the Mariners’ last home game on March 10. The ECHL ceased operations because of the pandemic on March 15.

“There’s certainly a financial impact, not just for us, but also the economic impact on restaurants and bars and businesses that benefit from events at the Cross Insurance Arena,” said Melanie Henkes, the arena’s general manger, “but there’s not an impact large enough that outweighs somebody’s life.”

In October, the Mariners announced tentative plans to start a 62-game season on Jan. 15, while 13 ECHL teams, mostly located in the South and Midwest where spectators are allowed, would start Dec. 11 and play 72 games.

At that time, the Mariners and arena management were guardedly optimistic that, if COVID-19 cases stayed manageable in Maine, the state could be convinced to ease gathering restrictions enough so that large arenas like the CIA could host enough fans to make playing games financially feasible. The Mariners averaged 2,685 fans last season and 2,998 during the franchise’s inaugural season in 2018-19.

Jim Gailey, the Cumberland County manager, said that shortly after a plan for allowing spectators was submitted to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Maine’s previously low COVID-19 rates began accelerating to record levels, and the state reduced its indoor gathering limit from 100 to 50 people.

“We started to see the uptick of COVID cases here in Maine and the timing was just all off,” Gailey said. “So needless to say, we knew we weren’t going to get too many eyes on our plan.”

All players for the six North Division franchises are immediately free agents and can seek contracts with other organizations. Finding a job won’t be easy.

“The 13 (ECHL) teams scheduled to start in December, they already have their roster set and I’m not sure how many of those teams are going to cut their own guys and bring in someone new,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong added that some European leagues have also suspended play. Other European leagues use players on loan from NHL and AHL franchises.

“None of our players are going to go over there and bump those guys out,” Armstrong said. “It puts our guys in a bind.”

The ECHL is considered the third tier of professional hockey in North America. Players make between $550 and $1,000 weekly during the season, with free housing and a food per diem.

“It’s going to be real difficult to find a place to play this year,” said Mariners’ second-year forward Ted Hart of Cumberland. “There’s probably a few hundred players looking to fill a few spots here and overseas.”

Hart added, “I’m not too confident right now. I’ll reach out to some friends in other spots and see if I can at least get a tryout and will have to decide whether to do that or work and wait for the Mariners to start up again in October.”

Goldberg said the franchise will begin preparing for the 2021-22 season.

“The silver lining is, there is going to be hockey played at some point. We’re going to be ready to play in the 2021-22 season,” Goldberg said.

Season-ticket holders are encouraged to advance this year’s fees toward next season.

“Obviously there are some circumstances where a refund would occur, but I think overwhelmingly our fans want to come to games,” Goldberg said. “It’s a very loyal base, so we want to do right by them.”

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