Hockey fans in Portland are still stunned, a week after learning the Pirates are leaving town.

For those of us old enough to remember, it’s a familiar feeling. Back in the spring of 1992 the Maine Mariners bolted for Providence after 15 years at the Cumberland County Civic Center. Then, like now, we were shocked. How could a team that won three championships just get up and leave?

Working at WGME-TV, I covered the loss of the Mariners for Channel 13. A year later I left the station to join the newly named Portland Pirates to be part of the marketing department and to call the games on radio. At that point, I was one of a half-dozen team employees. Not one of us was a player. Our mission was to rekindle the city’s passion for the game.

We had no idea what was coming. As the players arrived late that summer, they immediately took to their new home. They blended into the community, as veterans with families settled into offseason waterfront rentals and younger players fit right into the Old Port scene. That fall, it was hard to walk down Fore Street or Commercial Street on a weekend without bumping into a player.

The Pirates lived up to their name. A swashbuckling group led by Kevin Kaminski and Kerry Clark – “The Bruise Brothers” – the team commanded Portland’s attention every time it took the ice. In their very first game, the Pirates traveled to Providence and beat the AHL Bruins 6-3 in a game that featured nearly 400 penalty minutes.

Just like that, Portland fell in love with its new team. Owner Tom Ebright, who moved the team to Portland from Baltimore, told me the brawl-filled game in Providence sold thousands of tickets. Maine wanted a hard-working team that would fight for everything.

We got that, and more.

The team featured a blend of young prospects and veteran leaders. Jeff Nelson put up 107 points at the age of 21. Michel Picard, fresh off a year in the NHL with the expansion Sharks, led the way with 41 goals. Captain Chris Jensen and veteran Kent Hulst were gritty forwards who could hurt you with a check or a goal. Hulst is still involved with the southern Maine hockey community today.

The defense was rock solid with stay-at-home types like Jeff Sirkka and Jim Mathieson allowing Todd Nelson, Jason Woolley and Steve Poapst to join the attack. Behind them was the best goaltending in the league. Olie Kolzig and Byron Dafoe gave Portland a chance to win every night.

Barry Trotz – one of the best coaches in the game then and now – had plenty to work with.

With a talented team on the ice, our front-office team concocted promotions like Cream Cornwall Night (fans digging through creamed corn to find cash) and a visit from the Dynamite Lady (who used too much gunpowder and knocked out the scoreboard for the final two periods.) We had the most provocative fan contests in hockey, and a woman named Miss Conduct waiting in the penalty box. Ebright rode out on the ice between periods in a vintage car. A remote-control blimp dropped tickets and cash on fans. By midseason, the Old Port was dotted with Pirates jerseys. By the spring of 1994, the team was the hottest ticket in town. Portland dismissed the Albany River Rats in the first round as the Calder Cup playoffs returned to Maine. Then things got crazy.

The series with the Adirondack Red Wings, who had a better regular-season record, was a classic. It wouldn’t be decided until Sirkka fired an overtime goal, dubbed The Shot Heard Round Maine by an over-caffeinated play-by-play man (me). The finals against the Moncton Hawks featured a triple-overtime win and was wrapped up at the Civic Center on Memorial Day weekend. More than 15,000 fans lined Congress Street a few days later for a championship parade, and the team boarded the Scotia Prince for their own party.

The party was on in Portland.

But not all love affairs last forever. Changing NHL affiliations and a lease dispute with the renovated Civic Center took a toll on fan interest. Yet that interest seemed to be picking back up during this spring’s brief playoff run. The team loved playing in the newly renovated Cross Insurance Arena. We’ll see if they love playing in Springfield, and if that city can rekindle its interest in the sport (the departed Springfield Falcons were last in AHL attendance this past season).

In 1992, a group formed quickly to bring hockey back to town. There is already talk of a “Save the Pirates” group coming together. Hopefully it’ll just be a one-year absence.

That won’t help fill the void this fall when the opening night puck drop happens in western Massachusetts, not southern Maine.

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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