PORTLAND — Rick Belisle knows why he bought a $15 ticket to Saturday night’s Portland Pirates game. He doesn’t know why so many others didn’t.

He looked at the sections of empty seats that had bodies in them in December or any of the previous three months. “I’m a Pirates fan but

I’m not a season-ticket holder. You come all year to games, but this is what you wanted. This, and a call-up (to Buffalo) is what the players play for.”

It’s playoff hockey. These are the games where fans inhale with every Pirates shot and exhale with every J.P. Lamoureux save. Where checks carry more ooomph and can leave deeper bruises. Stakes are higher. Emotions, too.

“I don’t know where the hockey fans are,” said Belisle, looking around the Cumberland County Civic Center. “I can give you reasons, but I really don’t know.”

Your team digs and digs and digs to make the playoffs, and then half their fans don’t show up. Go figure.

Hockey people smarter than me shrug and simply say that’s the other face of playoff hockey. Too many playoff rounds. Fans pace themselves or stretch their dollars.

Fine. So make this first round a best-of-three series rather than best-of-seven. Give the fans a real taste of desperation hockey. Hang on the bandwagon because it’s moving too quickly and it’s too dangerous to jump off.

At a time when the games mean more, how do you stay away?

Game 1 of the Atlantic Division semifinals between the Pirates and Manchester Monarch drew fewer than 2,700 fans Friday night.

Maybe this was every serious Pirates fan in town.

In the series opener, with Manchester holding onto a one-goal lead in the third period, Pirates fans stayed with their team. Near the Monarchs’ net, a young boy stood in front of his seat, singing out in a voice that had not reached puberty.

“Let’s go Pirates!” Fans nearby turned in their seats to see where the sound was coming from. Cheers and groans grew louder with each

Pirates rush on goalie Jonathan Bernier. With every save, fans checked the clock on the big scoreboard over center ice. The minutes were ticking off too quickly.

More shots, more saves. Standing among fans, I looked around. No one was texting or gabbing on a cell phone. Young couples were not looking into each other’s eyes, but rather at the players on the ice. Thirst and hunger were put on hold.

So where were you? Still ticked at Brian Petrovek for attempting to move his team to Albany? Or is the support for the players that shallow? If Kevin Dineen is behind the bench coaching, the work ethic is there.

Is it because the Cumberland County Civic Center isn’t “festive” enough? Please, it’s playoff hockey.

Thunder Stix, Friday night’s giveaway, thundered, but the noise accompanied, rather than drowned out human voices. Next to me, one of Portland’s finest bent his body and ooohed with each shot and save over the last eight minutes of the game. Hey, cops need not be silent sentinels every second while on duty.

Suddenly you realized the game was selling itself without the ice girls and the free T-shirts. Sometimes minor league sports can turn into carnival midways. Not here, not now.

The Pirates never got Friday night’s tying goal and lost, 2-1. Saturday, about 3,600 found seats for a 3-1 loss. A full house for hockey is about 6,700.

Belisle, of Saco, brought Bobby Faucher of Hollis, the young son of a friend.

Cowbells were handed to fans pushing through the turnstiles and Faucher had two. They came out of their wrappers soon enough, but the clanking became the white noise to another hockey game and the cheers of fans desperate to pull their team into the lead.

It didn’t happen. The Pirates couldn’t find enough scoring opportunities amid the crowd in front of the Monarchs’ net. The series moves to Manchester for Games 3 and 4.

The Pirates may have played their last home game of the season Saturday night. Where were you?

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]