LEWISTON, Maine — So the local boys were wearing red and black instead of blue and white. So there was an oversized pirate working the crowd instead of Lewy and his gap-tooth snarl.
It’s pro hockey, by God, and it’s back in Lewiston.
“Go Pirates!” was how Matt Butler put it. “Aaaaaargh!”
How hungry for hockey are we? A few ardent fans had already been at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee for three hours by the time the doors opened, having set up in the parking lot for some tailgate action.
“Why not create a game-day experience?” said Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte.
Under a tent at the edge of the parking lot, half a dozen people were swilling beer, eating burgers and watching — what else? — “Slapshot” on a TV screen set up for that purpose.
Closer to the arena, groups of people were gathered near the doors as dusk fell. Some were local. But, while we’re talking about grieving Maineiacs fans, let’s not forget those who follow the Pirates with nearly equal passion.
One of them is Scott Winslow, a Pirates fan who came to Lewiston from Boothbay Harbor. He’s been following Portland hockey since the Maine Mariners, but Thursday night, it was all new as he navigated his way to an unfamiliar city.
“We came up through Brunswick, Topsham and Lisbon Falls,” Winslow said. “We kept missing our turns and getting lost. We’re here, though.”
They sure were. Winslow and his crew were there 90 minutes before game time. Clad in a Pirates jersey (with a Pirates T-shirt underneath), he said he loves the team, whether they’re playing on Free Street or Birch.
“It’s our first time here,” Winslow said. “But I’ve heard it’s a great hockey town.”
Nearby, Linda Perkins was nodding emphatically. A Durham woman who works in Lewiston, she knows a thing or two about hockey in both cities.
“We always went to Portland to see the Pirates,” she said, “and we always came to see the Maineiacs. We’re die-hard fans, for sure.”
So which is better, Portland or Lewiston?
Perkins didn’t say one way or another, although she did point out that parking is cheaper in Lewiston and the fans … Well, the fans here tend to appreciate the game with a little extra zeal.
“They’re such big fans here,” she said, looking around at the growing crowd. “They love their hockey in Lewiston.”
Plenty of people made the drive straight from Portland. They looked over the arena where their boys would be playing on unfamiliar ice. Some grumbled about the temporary move from Portland to Lewiston, but most were just looking forward to game time.
“Let’s play some hockey!” one Portland man roared, clapping his gloved hands together before the doors had even opened. An air horn poked from his jacket pocket, just waiting to come out in celebration.
There were a lot of jerseys, hats and T-shirts in the crowd, as always. At least half of them bore the Portland Pirates logo but there was plenty of Maineiacs bling, too. The people who followed the youth hockey team, some with the ferocity of rabid dogs, seemed willing to give this new team a shot.
“I missed a total of maybe 15 games total the entire time the Maineiacs were here,” said Butler of Auburn. “Hockey is my sport. I am definitely giving the Pirates a chance. They’ve got a young team, but speedy forwards will help. I’ll probably attend 10-15 Pirates games this season. I’m missing junior hockey, though, but dang it, we need hockey again in this city!”
Others adopted a “once burned, twice shy” attitude.
“I don’t want to get attached,” said Gail Scipione Shelley. “I was heartbroken when the Maineiacs left.”
Even so, Gail said she would go to some Pirates games, if only to see former Maineiacs take the ice. Mathieu Brisebois, for one, plays for the Pirates full-time. Other former Maineiacs will return to Lewiston while playing with various other AHL teams.
An estimated 1,600 people reportedly showed up to watch the Pirates opener, although the official attendance was 2,102. Once the first puck was dropped, it was just good old hockey: at times pretty, at times ugly. The familiar sights and sounds rocked the Colisee and the fans roared when necessary.
It took only 12 seconds before the fans saw the first hit of the night, a bone-rattling full-body check that shook the glass behind the Manchester net. The first scoring opportunity — the Pirates just missed an attempted wraparound — came after 39 seconds. The first penalty was called 3:45 into the game and the first goal made the net dance at 13:08.
Fans talked about more enjoyable facets of the game: Could the Pirates overcome the Monarchs’ size advantage? Would it take some time for them to acclimate to the Lewiston ice, said to be softer than the ice at the Civic Center in Portland? Who would be the first to be called up to Phoenix and when might it happen?
And so on. Hockey stuff. At first-period intermission, several people said they were considering picking up season tickets. Others purchased a smaller package — 13 games per year at $10 a pop — and said so far, they had no regrets.
Scott Winslow was mulling his options. He loves the Pirates, whether they’re in Portland or Lewiston. His attendance doesn’t rely on the nuance of finance or city government, but on an even more powerful force of nature. He has to drive from Boothbay Harbor, after all.
“I’d like to get season tickets,” Winslow said. “If only I knew what the weather was going to do.”
He had time to think about it. After three periods, the score was tied and the game was heading to shootout — bonus hockey to kick off the new season.