The puck went into the net and the big crowd at the Cross Insurance Arena was suddenly on its feet, twirling rally towels and cheering as if Saturday night was Game 1 of the Calder Cup finals.

When, in fact, it was the third period of the opening game of a new Portland Pirates season. The prodigal team of the American Hockey League returned home from its year in exile in Lewiston to a welcome that was mostly forgiveness and part memory lapse.

The Pirates took the ice to the proclamation that “hockey is back here in Portland” but fans didn’t need to be told. Seeing is believing.

“It was fantastic,” said Scott Prue after the Pirates beat the Providence Bruins, 3-2. Before the Pirates skated off the ice they raised their sticks to salute the fans. That’s done at the end of the season here, not at the end of the first game.

“You could feel more energy from the crowd and more energy from the players,” said Prue. He’s from Biddeford and bought season tickets for about six years. He and his wife, Stephanie, were among the few fans who drove up the Maine Turnpike to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee last winter. Saturday night, the couple and their 3-year-old son, Weston, were among the last to leave the arena.

Mom and dad wore Pirates game-day sweaters. When they got married, they invited other Pirates fans with seats in their section to the wedding. Hockey games, to them, aren’t simply entertainment. It’s the connection with fellow fans and their team that isn’t evident in some sports.

“I don’t care if the Pirates are affiliated with the worst team in the NHL,” said Scott Prue. He cares about hockey and the experience of being at professional hockey games. Period.

Loyalty to the team was abused by past ownership. Sure, fans like Prue were invited along for the season’s ride for the price of their tickets. But it felt like sitting in coach while the guests of corporate sponsors were catered to in first class. That works in Boston and New York. In Portland, not so much.

The Pirates are a minor league franchise. Local ownership has no control over the coach and the players. Ron Cain, the Pirates’ new majority owner and CEO, doesn’t have control over arena operations. Cumberland County is still the landlord.

Cain and his staff are hosts, and after beating the publicity drums and promising a new game experience, they did their best for the announced crowd of 5,601.

“I’m very excited,” said Laurel Webber before the game started. “After last year, we had to get back.”

She and her family came early and ate in the new grill area on the Center Street side of the arena. Her opening day tickets were a gift from her son, Tim.

“We didn’t buy our season tickets and we had the same seats for 19 years.” Seats that arena management designated as premium seats after last year’s renovations. To buy the same seats, the Webbers were asked for a $400 fee, she said. Laurel and her husband, Gary, were upset.

Saturday night, she wore her Pirates game sweater with the 1994-95 Calder Cup championship patch. The name across her back? Webber.

“What they’ve done here is really nice,” said Gary Webber, meaning the renovations that were most noticeable in the front lobby and concourse areas and the new concessions. “But they should have built a new arena.”

That was echoed by Mike Foley, a councilor-at-large for the city of Westbrook. As a kid, he worked in the visiting team’s locker room on game days. He was at Saturday’s game because “it was something to do and complain about.” He laughed and admitted to a love-hate relationship. Maine fell in love with owner Tom Ebright’s Pirates of 1994-95 but cooled when Brian Petrovek took over as managing owner a few years after Ebright’s death.

Foley heads to Boston frequently to watch the Celtics. He’s a Maine Red Claws fan. He admitted one more thing: he’ll probably see more Pirates games this season.

Jeff Courtney and his 11-year-old son, Garrett, are from Bangor but were in Portland for a youth soccer tournament. They got tickets to the Bruins-Pirates game and were glad they did.

Nate Damm of Winthrop and Kait Iuzzolino of Boothbay came to the game with Matt Sceviour and his wife, Alicia, visiting from Charleston, South Carolina. They’re 20-somethings, casual hockey fans, and were heading to the Old Port when the game ended.

“We loved it,” said Damm. “We had fun.”

Greg Morin from the Portland area was pleased. He bought a ticket package to five games for two people. He’s a Boston Bruins fan. Watching the Pirates play the Bruins’ farm team was a bit of win-win.

It seems I could have randomly pulled 10 more people out of the crowd and heard much the same.

“I’m happy,” said Brad Church, the Pirates’ chief operating officer and a former player. “It was a great night for Portland to see the building full.”

He constantly walked around the arena during the game. He was smiling.

There’s more to be done to make the franchise financially successful. But for first impressions, this one scored a point.


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