The sheet of ice maintained since October inside Cross Insurance Arena melted Sunday night, less than 24 hours after the Maine Mariners were eliminated from the ECHL playoff race in the penultimate game of their inaugural hockey season.

On Monday, Coach Riley Armstrong and General Manager Danny Briere conducted exit interviews with players, some of whom requested to stay in Portland over the summer.

“I think that speaks volumes about the city and how well they liked it,” Armstrong said. “We’re trying to bring back most of those young guys who we think have a future here.”

More than a year of planning took place between the time Comcast Spectacor announced the purchase of a floundering ECHL franchise based Alaska in June 2017 and the renamed club taking the ice in Maine in October of 2018.

The Mariners started slowly, dropping their first three games, but gradually rose as high as third place in the ECHL North Division. A five-game losing streak in late January dropped them back to the basement, but a second-half surge lifted them back to third as late as March 22, with only eight games remaining. Then another five-game skid sealed their fate.

They won two of their final three, including Sunday’s 4-3 shootout victory over Newfoundland, one of four ECHL North teams in the 16-team Kelly Cup tournament that begins Wednesday.

Having so many guys out of college, when we went on that first losing skid it was right around the mid-season point, and that’s usually a full season of college hockey,” Armstrong said. “You could see some guys start to teeter off a little bit. I threw in three days off in a row to kind of let them get away and maybe refocus and get some of their life back. With some guys it worked, and some guys had a hard time.”

The Mariners also enjoyed two six-game winning streaks. They were 6-2 in games decided in overtime and a remarkable 7-1 in shootouts.

Armstrong said he spoke with players Monday about preparing for the rigors of a 72-game season that often includes stretches of three games in one weekend, or four games in five nights.

A total of 57 players – 33 forwards, 18 defensemen and six goaltenders – wore a Mariners sweater this season. That’s more than three times the active roster (18) for any given game. The team is allowed to protect eight players for next season.

“It wasn’t something that I wanted, to have 50-some guys run through here,” Armstrong said. “Being a first-year team, I didn’t think (higher-level clubs) would come calling, having such a young team. But credit to the guys. They all had that drive, that determination to want to climb the ladder.”

Alex Kile, the first player to sign with Maine, spent most of the winter with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, Montreal’s top farm club. Laval also signed goaltender Connor LaCouvee, who was 12-4 in net for the Mariners, and recalled him in early March, marking the end of a hot stretch in which the team notched at least one point in 13 of 14 games.

Michael McNicholas, a University of New Hampshire grad who opened the season in Norway, wound up playing 65 games for the Mariners and recording 40 assists, both tops on the team. Greg Chase scored a team-high 21 goals in 41 games.

The Mariners drew a crowd of 3,428 for Sunday’s season finale, which raised the team’s record to 37 wins and 35 losses. They hold the dubious distinction of being the only franchise with a winning record absent from the playoffs.

At home, the Mariners averaged 2,998 fans per game, putting them at 22nd in the league. Elsewhere in New England, Manchester ranked 26th at 2,458 and Worcester 14th at 4,233.

“Pretty much what we expected,” said Adam Goldberg, Mariners vice president for business operations. “We were happy with who turned out and the energy and the enthusiasm they brought.”

Maine’s average crowd was larger (by 35 fans per game) than that of the Portland Pirates in their first season (2014-15) back in town after playing home games in Lewiston the previous winter. The AHL Pirates, who left for Springfield, Massachusetts, following the 2015-16 campaign, drew 3,363 for 38 dates in their final season in Maine, however.

“We spent a lot of the summer going after season-ticket prospects,” Goldberg said. “As far as ticket sales, moving into Year 2 I think group sales is a big opportunity for us to improve on.”

Goldberg pegged the number of season-ticket holders at 650 with about 1,000 full-season equivalents (two half seasons or four flex packs). He pointed to themed jerseys, Wild Blueberries Night and a Stanley Cup visit as successful promotions, as well as the Stick Taps program that highlights a different non-profit organization each game.

Last week, the Mariners front office held a focus group with season-ticket holders, and are in the process of setting up similar meetings with fans who bought flex or half-season plans.

“We don’t want to keep doing something if it doesn’t resonate with the fans,” Goldberg said. “I told the staff we have six months until Opening Night rolls around, but six months can go by very quickly.”

Glenn Jordan can be reached at 791-6425 or at:

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