October 10, 2013

Steve Solloway: Old-time hockey might enjoy a renaissance

LEWISTON - Five-year-old Isaac Thorndike nearly jumped out of his father's arms at the sound of large men on ice skates crashing the corner sideboards and plexiglass while chasing the puck. Thorndike's blonde head swiveled back to look at his father.

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Did you see that?

Welcome to the world of AHL hockey, kid. Welcome to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, where everything seems magnified.

Wednesday night was the season opener for the Portland Pirates. New year, new circumstances for the Pirates, who will not return to the Cumberland County Civic Center even after renovations are completed in early 2014.

The acrimonious negotiations between team ownership and Civic Center trustees have been suspended. The venerable Colisee will be the Pirates' home for the season.

A few businesses scrambled the letters on their signage for a new message: "Welcome Pirates." School kids gathered near the parking lot entrance, waved "Go Pirates" signs and chanted the team's name.

Inside the arena, Mike Burawski of Gardiner was already in his seat in Section 32, Row C. His signature black sombrero with silver trim was at his feet.

"Somebody gets their three goals, you've got to throw a hat onto the ice," said Burawski, referring the traditional celebration of a three-goal performance by a home player. For eight years he bought season tickets to the Lewiston Maineiacs, the team of 16-to-20-year-olds playing to get noticed by NHL scouts.

He works in Portland and for eight years would talk up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League games at the Colisee. "I struggled to get people here. They think Lewiston is a third world country."

Burawski shook his head. This is unadulterated hockey played in a gritty, blue-collar city where the heart of hockey has always beat harder.

He sat in the same seat he had for eight years with the Maineiacs. He split his time between Pirates and Maineiacs games when there was no conflict. When there was a conflict, he was here, Seat 7, where his sombrero could reach the ice surface easily.

Travis Lemay and his wife, Regina Goyette, celebrated their third year of marriage Wednesday night. They met at a Lewiston Maineiacs game. Spending their anniversary at a Pirates game seemed like the right thing to do. They had the two end seats in the row along the rink sideboards and plexiglass. Lemay looked like he was sitting in his living room.

"Best seats in the house? I think so. Nobody walks in front of you." Except the players. Neither husband nor wife were complaining.

Adam Longchamps, Ryan Richard and Matt Manson, all about 27 years old and all former high school players from Lewiston, Edward Little and St. Dom's, walked through the doors after the first period started. Sometimes they went to Portland to watch the Pirates. Usually not.

"We all played in this building," said Richard, who now lives about 15 minutes away in Greene. "This is where the hockey we know is played."

Brad Church, the Washington Capitals' first-round draft pick in 1995 and a fan favorite when he played for the Pirates, looked around at the crowd of some 2,000 and the players who seemed larger than life in the smaller confines of the old arena. "Just like the rinks I remember back in Canada. Old-time hockey. I love it."

Even with about 1,600 empty seats, the place was alive, noisy. At times you couldn't hear the person standing or sitting next to you without shouting. For fans from the Portland area -- and they were some -- the drive north may become the trip they don't want to make.

Wednesday, Major League Baseball was still in the first round of its playoffs. The Red Sox are heading to the American League Championship Series. The Patriots are on people's minds. Hey, Thornton Academy plays Cheverus in football this Saturday.

Hockey? Too soon, too early.

So there weren't long lines of fans waiting to buy new Pirates sweatshirts and T-shirts where the name Portland is hard to find, depending on the merchandise. Everywhere, it seemed, you saw the new slogan, "My Town, My Team."

A winning or losing team will make a difference. The Colisee may become the place that's out of sight and maybe out of mind.

Time will tell.

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

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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