PORTLAND, Maine — The popularity of the University of Maine men’s hockey team was in evidence with another big crowd at the Cross Insurance Arena Saturday night. School officials expect to continue to schedule an annual game there while eyeing the potential of hosting an NCAA Regional.
University of Maine athletic director Karlton Creech said Portland is a “very important market for us” and hopes to continue to schedule games there in multiple sports.
“We don’t want to overdo it but we want to play there when it makes sense to do so,” said Creech.
“The largest concentration of alums and supporters (in Maine) live there. We want to get exposure in that market,” Creech explained.
“The entire state of Maine is important and, obviously, a large segment of the population is centered in southern Maine,” said men’s hockey coach Red Gendron. “Our program has received an awful lot of support there so it’s extremely important to give them the opportunity to see the team play.”
A large and enthusiastic crowd listed at 6183 turned out for a nonconference hockey game between Hockey East rivals Maine and New Hampshire. UNH won 7-4.
“It exceeded our expectations,” said Dale Olmstead, interim general manager of the Cross Insurance Arena. “We could have sold 2,000-3,000 more tickets.”
Olmstead also noted that the University of New Hampshire’s proximity to Portland and its fan base also helped attendance.
The Black Bear hockey program and the City of Portland have always enjoyed a healthy relationship.
Maine has drawn an average of 5,818 fans to the last 10 games at the former Cumberland County Civic Center which works out to 86.4 percent capacity. The arena held 6,733 for hockey before the recently-completed $34 million renovations which reduced the capacity slightly according to Olmstead.
And the opponents haven’t been among the nation’s elite.
The men’s hockey team will return to Portland in October to host the prestigious Ice Breaker Tournament, an annual event which marks the traditional start of the college hockey season. It is expected to attract teams which have each won multiple NCAA titles.
Gendron has made occasional trips to the Portland area to do speaking engagements and spread the word about his program and he said, “I have always been very well-received there. We have a lot of alums and some of our ex-players are coaching youth hockey down there. I’ve gotten to know some of the people involved in youth hockey there and they do a great job.”
He was excited about the New Hampshire game, which is going to turn into an annual affair with the teams playing nonconference games in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Portland, as well as the Ice Breaker.
A league game may also be added.
“It is important for us to put good teams in front of the southern Maine fans,” he said.
If the Ice Breaker Tournament is well-received as he expects it to be, Gendron is hoping it could set the stage for an NCAA Regional tournament.
An NCAA hockey regional has never been held in the state although Maine hosted NCAA tournament games back when home rinks were used for tournament games.
Now the NCAA has four, four-team regionals at neutral sites leading up to the Frozen Four.
“If Portland and the Cross Insurance Arena do what we know they will do [for the Ice Breaker], they will be very attractive to the NCAA in terms of being a potential host for an NCAA regional,” predicted Gendron. “Portland is a great town.”
“We would love to host a regional,” said Creech.
The $34 million facelift, including the addition of locker rooms and rest rooms, would make it more enticing to the NCAA.
The capacity could be problematic because all of the regionals that have been held in the Northeast feature rinks with a capacity of at least 8,412 (the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut).
The Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, where Maine and New Hampshire played on Friday night, holds 9,852. The Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York, holds 11,200; the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, lists a capacity of 11,940; the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, can seat 12,239 and the Times Union Center in Albany, New York holds 14,236.
Hockey isn’t the only UMaine team that will play in Portland this season.
First-year men’s basketball coach Bob Walsh has moved his Jan. 7 home game against the University of Vermont to the Cross Insurance Arena. It will be the Black Bears’ America East opener.
Walsh said “we want everyone in the state of Maine to be behind us. There is incredible energy for basketball in the state. There is a great fan base. We want to be the state’s team.
“The game with Vermont is going to be a big game and we’re hoping to have a great atmosphere. We want to give the fans, the high school players and the coaches a chance to come see us play.”
He believes it could be a valuable tool in recruiting.
Several other UMaine programs have played in the Portland area in recent years.
The women’s basketball team last played there in 2012 against the University of Rhode Island.
The women’s soccer team opened its 2013 season against Holy Cross in Portland.
The football team had four games in Portland between 2000 and 2005.
Will Biberstein, UMaine’s associate athletic director for internal operations, said he expects to see the football team return to Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium some time. However, since they have so few home games — Maine had five this season — it creates a dilemma to schedule a game in Portland.
The baseball team played Boston College at Hadlock Stadium in Portland in 2012 and has also scheduled games in Sanford.
Maine hasn’t been able to play field hockey games in the Portland area.
Maine field hockey coach Josette Babineau said there are no fields in the Portland area that have the Astroturf surface that is prevalent in Division I field hockey. The fields with artificial surfaces have a FieldTurf-type texture which is slower and more like a natural grass field.
Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper said playing in the Portland area is “vital.
“The venues in Sanford and at Hadlock are both nice and it’s huge for recruiting purposes,” said Trimper. “But is is also important because it is nearly impossible to get a New England (Division I) team to travel to Orono for a midweek game. They will come to Sanford or Portland.”
Trimper explained that traveling to Orono for a midweek game would mean missing class for his opponents.
Trimper also feels if a UMaine team can win an important game in the Portland area, it helps the other programs.
“If the hockey team wins in Portland, it helps me get recruits,” said Trimper.
Maine hockey defenseman Jake Rutt, a senior who grew up in Scarborough, said one of the reasons we “travel well” is because southern Maine fans will go to Boston and other Hockey East venues to support them.
He said UMaine apparel is prevalent in the stores in southern Maine and there is definitely a strong connection between the university and southern Maine even though Orono is 137 miles from Portland.
“Our Maine winters are harsh so it’s nice to be able to play in Portland so the [southern Maine] fans can see us play. Traveling north to Orono for a game can be a haul [especially in bad weather] and it usually means staying in a hotel which means more money,” said Rutt.