For two days in October, no other place in North America could lay claim to being as much of hockey's home as could that city along the shore. The trident of time impaled the participants of the Ice Breaker unequally. The powers of past, present, and future weighed heaviest on the University of Maine. From the Black Bears's entry into the tournament in a contest against Michigan State when the Spartans relied on Travis Walsh to shore up their blue line, constant reminders of Shawn Walsh's legend and role in building Maine hockey descended on the Cross Insurance Arena.
The present was on the minds of most of the Black Bears. The new season needs to be better than the last. Red Gendron, now unmustachioed from his famed days as Yale's associate head coach in Pittsburgh, hopes to lead Maine back to conference and national contention sooner rather than later. Finding a freshman netminder who met the best that one of college hockey's most vaunted programs could hurl his way and leading a young squad to two pairwise ties (and shootout wins) in emotionally laden games to open the season indicate that Red's sooner may be present.
The future nonetheless twirled through the minds of those associated with Portland, Cross Insurance Arena, and Maine hockey. The 2015 Ice Breaker tested the grounds for the ability of all associated parties to host similar events in the future. The stated goal for the Portland-supporting parties is hosting an NCAA regional. Mark Emmert of the Portland Press Herald distilled the decision between success or failure in reaching this goal to the ability of the 2015 Ice Breaker to answer one apt question: "Is Portland a hockey town?"
For the contributors of Where Angels Fear to Tread, the answer is an emphatic yes.
One must define terms to answer better Mr. Emmert's inquiry. What is a hockey town? What gives a community that moniker? This writer believes that another triplet distinguishes hockey towns from towns where hockey is played.
Those three elements are accommodations, breadth of knowledge and interest, and catharsis (okay, the last one may be defined better as passion, but how am I to resist the temptation incumbent in making an ABCs for hockey towns?). Accommodations concern both the surrounding environs as well as the venue in which games will be played. In the former case, the Portland area is replete with possibilities from downtown hotels within walking distance of Cross Insurance Arena to the beach-front hotels that dot the region's resort communities.
The second half of the A in the ABCs of hockey towns is what inspires most debate about suitability of the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, ME hosting an NCAA regional. Is the Arena too big? Is it too small? Most have an opinion. Few support theirs with facts. This writer superimposed some cold, hard facts on the seating chart of the 2015 Ice Breaker's venue.
We hear every season the lamentations that NCAA regionals are played in front of empty, half-empty, or moribund arenas. Rarely does anyone provide the historical average attendance of an NCAA regional. This contributor calculated the average attendance of all regionals since the NCAA adopted the current single-elimination, four-game format with no byes in 2003. There are several facts to consider before the average attendance figure is given. Firstly, official attendance figures report formal sellouts only six times in 13 completed tournaments. Only two of those sellouts occurred at a site that was not on the host's campus. Perceived smallness of buildings has been far from a problem over more than a decade of regionals.
An average of 6,460 college-hockey fans attend a given NCAA regional game since 2003. Notwithstanding regional banter, the East does slightly outdraw the West (divvying East and Northeast into "East," and Midwest and West into "West") in terms of attendance at regionals. Eastern hosts see on average 6,474 sweater-wearing zealots revolve the turnstiles for their events.
So, how does Cross Insurance Arena stack up (or, fill up, if you will) relative to those figures? The reported capacity of the Arena is 6,733. Red Gendron differed a bit when he goaded Mainers to fill an arena whose capacity he purported to be around 6,900. No matter the figure, the Cross Insurance Arena is more than large enough to host an NCAA regional. The average crowd for an NCAA regional in the East still would leave roughly four percent of seats vacant. In fact, and based upon facts, the Cross Insurance Arena seems to be the perfect size for an NCAA regional.
The breadth of knowledge and interest in college hockey among Mainers and Portland was impressive. Roaming the picturesque streets of the inviting seaside community, even away from the Ice Breaker's block party, locals engaged and struck up conversations about college hockey. There was no lack of latent interest in college hockey. In fact, the apparent breadth of its appeal outside of the arena, outside of the dark blue and light blue-wearing throngs, and away from the event made Portland a particularly gracious host for even unaligned fans like the contributors of Where Angels Fear to Tread.
Forgive this writer a digression. Coaches of great programs, like Boston University and Cornell, often look outside the world of college hockey to find fanaticism that equals the devotion that accompanies their programs. Few programs in college hockey can boast that their fans's investment equals that of college football. There is a reason why David Quinn is not amiss in describing Red Hot Hockey as the Terriers's biennial "bowl game." Mike Schafer is right to find the nearest peer of the rabid antics of Lynah Rink in the football stadia of the B1G and SEC during Fall.
Sitting in a hockey rink in Portland, watching Mainers embrace their hockey team, as alumni and citizens alike, this unaligned writer realized that what Maine has is distinct. Red Gendron with a judicious addendum at the well-organized and fun block party said that no program in the nation enjoys the support of "fans, alumni, and citizens" like the hockey team of the University of Maine. This writer, after just having enjoyed the welcoming community's fare, found himself in agreement.
Black-Bears hockey teams are embraced in a manner and way that only the football teams of large public universities in the B1G and SEC truly can sympathize. It was nothing short of electric to experience. The Lynah Faithful more than equal the zeal of supporters of the Maine hockey program. However, the constitution of the Lynah Faithful is academic through a shared alma mater or regional in terms of proximity to either Central New York or New York City. There is something special when an entire state gloms onto a team as a symbol of self like Mainers do with the hockey team from the University of Maine.
This attachment extends to most things college hockey which makes Portland a perfect host for future Ice Breakers and NCAA regionals. The city makes college-hockey events seem consequential and provides visitors with ample recreational outlets of all varieties. The venue is the perfect size. It is better to have a building that can endure a poor regional draw from seeding without swimming in space and drowning in costs than to have a larger, cavernous building feel emptier. If the Cross Insurance Arena were blessed with a good draw from the committee, the building would be transformed into the intimate and raucous environments that distinguish the best of college hockey from all other sports.
And, if Maine earns a berth to the national tournament when Portland hosts, well, it is always magical when the Black Bears play in Maine.