The original Maine Mariners won the Calder Cup in their first season.

The Portland Pirates won the Calder Cup in their first season.

“No pressure, huh?” joked Riley Armstrong, who will be making his head coaching debut Saturday night at Cross Insurance Arena as a second incarnation of the Maine Mariners takes on the Adirondack Thunder to open the ECHL season.

The game marks the end of a pro hockey drought in Portland that lasted two years and five months, since the Pirates left for Springfield, Massachusetts.

These Mariners won’t raise a Calder Cup because that prize is reserved for the American Hockey League champion.

Maine will compete a level below in the ECHL, a league that started 30 years ago as the five-team East Coast Hockey League – players often call it The Coast – but switched to the four-letter acronym when its region expanded. The ECHL’s top prize is the Kelly Cup, won for the past two seasons by the Colorado Eagles, a franchise that has since risen to the AHL as an expansion team affiliated with the NHL Colorado Avalanche.

This season the ECHL includes 27 teams in 20 states and two Canadian provinces. The Mariners will be in the North Division with Adirondack (upstate New York), the Brampton (Ontario) Beast, Manchester (New Hampshire) Monarchs, Newfoundland Growlers, Reading (Pennsylvania) Royals and Worcester (Massachusetts) Railers.

Armstrong, who turns 34 next month, grew up in Saskatchewan and played professionally for 12 years, appearing in two NHL games with the San Jose Sharks but mostly toiling in the minors as well as in Kazakhstan, Germany, Finland and Sweden. His mother, Rosemary, is a skating coach who taught many a hockey player, including Mariners left wing Dawson Leedahl.

In addition to playing hockey, Riley Armstrong was a competitive figure skater until his junior year of high school and it’s a safe bet to say he’s the only ECHL coach who can land a triple salchow.

Leedahl is one of the three Mariners under contract to the New York Rangers, Maine’s parent club in the NHL. The other two are goalies Brandon Halverson and Chris Nell. Two other Mariners are under contract to NHL clubs. Defenseman Brycen Martin (Buffalo Sabres) was a third-round draft pick in 2014. Right wing Antoine Waked (Montreal Canadiens) is one of the three players who first skated Thursday with the Mariners, on loan from Montreal’s AHL club, the Laval Rocket.

The other two players from Laval are forward Morgan Adams-Moisan and defenseman Ryan Culkin.

“Whether they come from different teams, they’re all here and they’re all working to get to the American Hockey League,” Armstrong said. “It broadens friendships throughout the league and it’s these friendships players make that usually last a lifetime.”

Maine’s oldest player is Zach Tolkinen, a 28-year-old defenseman from Minnesota who played last season with Wheeling (West Virginia), where Armstrong was an assistant coach. In Portland, Tolkinen will wear the C on his sweater as team captain, with center Terrence Wallin and defenseman Scott Savage serving as alternate captains.

Under ECHL rules, the Mariners can suit up 18 players per game, which usually breaks down to 10 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies. With only three lines, conditioning becomes a factor late in each period.

“With the pace of our practices, I feel like the guys are ready,” said Armstrong, who spent much of last winter scouting and recruiting after accepting the head coaching job in February. “It’s going to be good to finally see the puck hit the ice.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

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