After a 2 1/2-year hiatus, fans and local merchants alike welcome the sport’s return as the ECHL franchise Maine Mariners take the ice Saturday in Portland.

Scott Prue is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Portland’s new minor-league hockey team.

The North Waterboro resident had bought season tickets to the Portland Pirates for seven years before the team moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, in May 2016. On Saturday evening, he plans to bring his wife and two young sons to the inaugural game of the Maine Mariners, an ECHL franchise that marks the return of pro hockey to Cross Insurance Arena after two dormant winters.

“I’m happy to have hockey back,” said Prue, 29. “I will be there opening night but we did not buy season tickets.”

The arena is scheduled to host 36 home games from October through early April for the Mariners, a team named after the American Hockey League franchise that first occupied the newly built Cumberland County Civic Center in 1977. The original Mariners won the AHL’s Calder Cup in each of their first two seasons and were embraced so warmly by local hockey fans that many of the players put down roots in the area and raised families here.

Much like the Portland Sea Dogs are two rungs below the Boston Red Sox on baseball’s minor-league ladder, the Mariners are professional hockey’s Double-A equivalent, affiliated with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL and the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League.

Adam Goldberg, vice president of business operations for the team, said as of Thursday the Mariners had sold 860 season tickets to fans and another 122 to businesses – topping the 750 season tickets sold by the AHL Pirates in their final season, according to the arena’s management firm. The team expects a crowd of about 5,000 for Saturday’s game at Cross Arena, which has a capacity of 6,435.

“I anticipate a good walk-up Saturday,” Goldberg said. “It’s going to look pretty packed.”

ATHLETES PLAY MORE MINUTES

Riley Armstrong, named head coach of the Mariners in February, said fans should expect a level of play similar to that of the AHL.

“There won’t be much difference,” he said. “I’d say the top six forwards in the ECHL on any team can play in the American League when given the opportunity. I think all the (defensemen) can play. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity.”

The Maine Mariners practice at Cross Insurance Arena on Thursday. Team officials said so far they’ve sold 860 season tickets to fans and another 122 to businesses. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

What’s different about the ECHL, Armstrong said, is that because only 18 players suit up for games, they get tired because they play more minutes and thus are prone to more mistakes.

“It’s going to create more opportunities to score goals, probably every shift,” Armstrong said.

Sixty-six players on opening day NHL rosters this fall have ECHL experience, along with 42 NHL coaches and 33 referees and linesmen. Last season, three players spent time in both the ECHL and NHL, including goaltender Brandon Halverson, a second-round draft pick of the Rangers expected to be in uniform for the Mariners on Saturday.

Under terms of a collective bargaining agreement, ECHL players with fewer than 25 games of professional experience are paid at least $470 per week and veterans receive at least $510. Teams also provide housing for their players. The Mariners will live in South Portland’s Redbank Village.

By contrast, AHL players receive a minimum salary of $47,500 and those in the NHL are paid at least $650,000.

The Mariners invited three players with local ties to training camp, but released goalie Brian Billett of Brunswick last week and forward Trevor Fleurent of Biddeford on Tuesday. Forward Terrence Wallin, who makes his summer home in Kennebunk but grew up near Philadelphia, is a three-year ECHL veteran after a college career at UMass-Lowell.

FOR BUSINESS OWNERS, ANTICIPATION

Hockey fans aren’t the only folks happy to see the sport return to downtown Portland. Bars and restaurants near the arena have gone two winters with only the occasional concert or show drawing patrons to CIA.

Carolyn Dagostino, director of operations for BRGR Bar, which took over the space at 11 Brown St. formerly occupied by Margaritas Mexican Restaurant, closed on the deal a week before the Pirates announced their departure.

“That was a huge bummer for us,” Dagostino said. “We were kind of expecting that built-in business that first winter. We did fine without them, but we’re really looking forward to seeing what a difference it makes to have five to six games per month for a good chunk of the winter.”

Annaliese Lafayette, general manager for Holiday Inn by the Bay, said her hotel has contracted with the ECHL to house visiting teams, an arrangement similar to one it had with the AHL when the Pirates had home games.

“Portland in the winter is a little bit slower,” Lafayette said. “We have had a great relationship in the past with the hockey team and hope to have another great relationship with this one.”

Not just visiting teams, but visiting fans often stayed at the hotel, situated across Spring Street from Cross Arena.

“We already have had several booking inquiries for family members or friends who might want to see games,” Lafayette said. “We’re super-excited. I think it’ll be good for the civic center, and for us and other area businesses.”

‘HAPPY HOCKEY IS COMING BACK’

Portland isn’t the only New England city to have an ECHL franchise fill the void after an AHL team left town. In 2015, five AHL franchises moved west to form a Pacific Division, disrupting operations in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

Manchester retained its Monarchs name and affiliation with the Los Angeles Kings by accepting an ECHL franchise that had been in Ontario, California. Attendance dropped from 5,621 per game to 4,622 in the first year and continued falling to 3,580 in 2016-17 and 2,793 last season.

Worcester, like Portland, went two years without pro hockey until the expansion Railers hit the ice last fall. Attendance rose from a 3,847 average in the final season of the AHL Sharks to 4,393 in the inaugural Railers season.

The Pirates, in their final two seasons in Portland, drew an average of 2,963 and 3,363 fans per game, respectively.

Day-of-game ticket prices for the Mariners remain similar to those offered by the Pirates, at $20 for adults, and $14 for children 12 and under.. Buying at least a day ahead drops prices to $18 and $10.

A year ago, at a news conference announcing Comcast Spectator’s purchase of the Alaska franchise and its plan to move it to Maine, the chair of the CIA’s board of trustees said expectations for ticket prices “will be on the low side of the teens, not the high side of the teens.”

Goldberg said that season and flexible ticket packages are less expensive on a per-game basis and pointed to promotions such as Friday night deals that offer, until the start of the second period, hot dogs for $1, $2 popcorn and $3 draft beer.

“The big thing,” said season-ticket holder Danielle Forgues of Buxton, “is to get ’em through the door. Then maybe they’ll spend money on food and merchandise.”

As for Prue, he said he knows “a bunch of people are upset about the pricing, but you can’t really control that. I think they’ll be all right. All the previous season-ticket holders I know, they’re all happy hockey is coming back.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

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