PORTLAND – The Dennehy family checked the hockey schedule and looked at the calendar. Clarkson in Portland to play the University of Maine? They could do the two-hour drive Saturday. Easy.

Sure beat the all-day trek to Potsdam, N.Y., where the Clarkson campus is located and where 21-year-old Brian Dennehy is a senior and a fan. “You haven’t been to a college hockey game until you’ve been to Clarkson,” he said. Louder than loud. No empty seats.

So why are you and your folks at the Cumberland County Civic Center? You live outside Foxborough, Mass. Nothing better to do two days after Thanksgiving?

Mom, dad and their son turned their disbelieving eyes on me. Because Clarkson was playing Maine, which, in their minds, meant this was a very big game.

Oh. I must have been listening to the critics of Maine Coach Tim Whitehead for longer than I realized. The Maine hockey brand may take a beating in Orono, but the farther you travel down the interstate, the perception of hockey rot changes.

“Hockey programs have their ups and downs,” said Tim Cashell of North Yarmouth, sitting with 10-year-old twin sons Cameron and Curtis. “(Maine) will be back. You’ve got to support the team in good times and bad times.”

Oh. Maine hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament in a few years. Its last national championship was in 1999, or before Cashell’s sons were born. Cashell is a youth hockey coach.

“Things go in cycles. I like the hockey Maine plays.”

Oh. I wandered away, approaching other strangers for my typically unscientific poll and hearing variations of the same answers. Maine once stood with Boston College, Boston University and New Hampshire as the elite of the Hockey East. Maine is no longer elite.

But in Brian Dennehy’s mind, Maine can beat the elite. Just not as consistently as it once did.

Maine hockey didn’t fill the arena for this game. There were swaths of empty seats in the corners. Rows of four, five or six empty seats elsewhere.

White Thunder Stix with blue University of Maine markings were handed to arriving fans. About two dozen members of the Maine pep band kept the noise coming. A quick Maine lead followed by the trading of goals kept the crowd buzzing.

When Brian Flynn and Will O’Neill led their teammates from the locker room onto the ice, the white sweaters with the blue Maine script meant something. As poorly as the Black Bears played in third periods last season and in games opening this new season, the brand still stands for success.

Maine took a 3-6-2 record into the game and empty seats most likely reflected that. Yet thousands of seats were filled with fans who didn’t find a lot of reasons to visit the concessions.

“The glass is half full,” said Irv Marsters, a Maine supporter who believes the sun shines every day hockey is played. It’s November, he said. Don’t pay so much attention to the record.

“This is a small, quick, blue-collar team,” said Marsters. “Especially around the net. They haven’t found their firepower yet, but they will.

“You’ll see the character when they turn it around and how they come back from this start.”

It’s been a long 15 years or so since Maine played New Hampshire here. A long time since their epics sent temperatures soaring in this building.

Maine didn’t turn the clock back Saturday. It did find its fans again.

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

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