Maine Mariners players skate at the start of the team’s first practice of the season at the Cross Insurance Arena on Tuesday in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It’s not lobster rolls or the smell of the sea air that players returning to the Maine Mariners missed most about Portland. It’s playing in front of fans at Cross Insurance Arena.

“I’m excited for the home opener. I’m really excited about that. I can’t wait to see a packed barn and just the energy the fans bring,” said forward Conner Bleackley, who played in 15 games for the Mariners in the 2019-20 season, the last time the team took the ice.

The Mariners sat out the 2020-21 ECHL season due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the ECHL shut down the 2019-20 season in March 2020, Maine was in its second season in the league, sitting in fourth place in the North Division and making a playoff push. Now, a year and a half since the team last played, the Mariners almost feel like an expansion team again.

Tuesday morning, the Mariners practiced for the first time this season. The team has a number of new players, a new head coach and a new affiliation with the NHL’s Boston Bruins.

“There’s a lot of new stuff, which is going to be exciting for our fans. There’s going to be a different feel to it, but once the puck drops, it’s hockey,” said Coach Ben Guite, a former player and assistant coach at the University of Maine. “This is a good league with good players. Some of them are going to play in the NHL at some point.”

Maine Mariners Coach Ben Guite talks with his players during practice Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

After a pair of exhibition games against the Worcester Railers this weekend, including one at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston on Friday, the Mariners open the regular season Oct. 22 at Cross Insurance Arena against the Railers.

“Everything’s new. We had some Zoom meetings before camp just to familiarize ourselves with everybody. I’m still getting to know everybody and put names to faces,” Bleackley said.

Guite served as UMaine’s interim head coach last spring following the death of Dennis “Red” Gendron. Guite was an assistant coach with the Black Bears from 2013-21. He replaced former Mariners coach Riley Armstrong, now an assistant coach with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the top affiliate for the Philadelphia Flyers. Guite said his coaching style will not change coaching pro players instead of college athletes, although the longer pro season will be a grind.

“You play more games. You practice less. Sometimes you have barely enough to field a team. In college you always have around 30 guys,” Guite said.

Some Mariners, like Bleackley, joined the Allen (Texas) Americans in the ECHL’s Mountain Division and were able to play last season. Lewis Zerter-Gossage, another returning player from Maine’s 2019-20 season, said he played 11 games for a team in Weiden, Germany, last season.

“Being back in Maine, I think this was a place I was hoping to play last season. Being here, it’s a long time coming,” said Zerter-Gossage, who grew up in Montreal and vacationed in Maine as a child. “I was here for a month or a bit more two years ago. It’s super homey. The people around town are great about the Mariners. It’s a really cozy place.”

Brycen Martin, left and Devon Paliani of the Maine Mariners run drills during practice Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Former UMaine forward Brendan Robbins is in Mariners camp on a tryout. Robbins played for the Black Bears from 2015-2019 when Guite was an assistant under Gendron. Robbins spent last season with the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks, scoring one goal in 33 games.

“This is a lot closer to home for me, and the state of Maine has always been good to me for hockey, so I figured why not come back,” said Robbins, a native of Nashua, New Hampshire. “I need to stick to my game and show Coach (Guite) what I have. Keep my head down and do what I do well. Skate hard, battle on pucks and prove myself this weekend in the two preseason games. I played with him for four years. He got to see how I play and what I can do. But the pro game’s a whole another level. Division I is good hockey but the pros are even better.”

The Mariners have a lot to nail down in this short training camp, Guite said.

“We want to implement the identity with which we want to play. The type of attitude you want to play with and give the guys who are going to be here the chance to compete for positions and give them the chance to show what they’ve got,” Guite said.


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