The Maine Mariners wait to be introduced before the franchise’s first home game on Oct. 13, 2018. The Mariners are losing their closest rival after the Manchester Monarchs folded last week. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Adam Goldberg, vice president of business operations for the Maine Mariners, is glad he didn’t release the home dates for next season’s ECHL hockey schedule at Cross Insurance Arena.

There would have been a few holes in it.

Last week, the Manchester Monarchs announced they were closing shop after 18 seasons in New Hampshire, the last four after making the transition from the American Hockey League to the ECHL.

Manchester and Maine played 14 times in 2018-19 as the Mariners brought professional hockey back to Portland to fill the void created when the AHL Portland Pirates skipped town following the 2015-16 season. Those 14 games accounted for nearly 20 percent of the Mariners’ 72-game schedule.

“From a selfish Maine Mariners standpoint, I was upset just because it was our closest opponent,” Goldberg said. “It certainly makes travel easier for us when we have an opponent so close.”

A league spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the Manchester franchise. Mariners General Manager Danny Briere and Coach Riley Armstrong said they have been asked not to comment about the Monarchs until the league decides how to proceed.

“Nobody really knows what the status is,” Briere said. “Obviously, having Manchester in the league is critical to the financial side, to the hockey side and to the travel side of our franchise. They have a great facility, so hopefully they can find a way to be part of the league for many years to come.”

Portland, Manchester and Worcester are the three New England cities that hosted ECHL franchises after previously serving as home to an AHL club. After winning the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2015 and drawing an average of 5,621 fans, the Monarchs saw significant attendance declines in each of their four seasons as an ECHL affiliate.

The Monarchs ranked 26th of the league’s 27 teams this winter with an average of 2,458 fans – a plunge of 47 percent from their first ECHL season. The Mariners ranked 22nd with an average of 2,998 fans.

“It’s just clear to us minor league hockey is not viable in Manchester at the ECHL level,” Brian Cheek, the Monarchs’ chief executive officer, told the Manchester Union Leader.

The story is different in Worcester, however, where the AHL Sharks drew fewer than 4,000 fans in each of their final two seasons. After two years without pro hockey,Worcester has drawn 4,393 and 4,233 in their first two seasons as an expansion ECHL franchise called the Railers.

Brian Petrovek, the current CEO of the AHL Stockton Heat who held that same position with the Portland Pirates for nearly 14 years, said its difficult to equate Manchester’s situation with other franchises.

“Just as a bystander, I don’t think there should be any relationship between one market and another in terms of sustainability,” he said. “It’s difficult to do an apples to apples comparison.”

After leaving the Pirates, Petrovek oversaw the Adirondack franchise in Glens Falls, New York, as it made the transition from the AHL to ECHL. Attendance has risen steadily in each of its four ECHL seasons, although the most recent number (3,409) remains shy of the final AHL season (3,642).

Armstrong, who has put down roots in Gorham with his family, said he is not concerned about the stability of Portland’s franchise.

“The fan base in Portland is really strong,” he said. “I think the fans in Portland love hockey. So when it comes down to it, I trust in our fan base and our front office and our ownership group.”

The travel time between Portland and Manchester was an hour and 10 minutes, Armstrong said, and made for both an easy trip and a natural rivalry. The Mariners hosted six games and traveled to Manchester for eight. Against Worcester, there was a 7-7 split home and away.

“I like those high-intensity games against Manchester and Worcester,” he said. “Everybody gets up for the games.”

Upcoming ECHL league meetings are scheduled for Las Vegas in June. Briere and Paul Holmgren, the Mariners’ governor, plan to attend.

A list of protected players is due in the league office on June 1 and the team can begin signing players on June 16.

“We will be able to retain the players we love and want to build around,” Briere said. “I think we should be in a much better position going into the second season.”

On the business side, Goldberg said he was pleased with the team’s inaugural season.

“Year one was sort of a survive-and-advance year,” he said. “Every day was a first day for us. Now we understand the cycle. We understand what’s coming toward us. We left room for improvement, for sure. But I’m incredibly proud of the staff and the product we were able to put together.”


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