The Maine Mariners are scheduled to hit the ice again on Oct. 22 with a home game against the Worcester Railers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Maine Mariners took a small but positive step toward returning to the ice at Cross Insurance Arena by releasing their 2021-22 ECHL hockey schedule.

A 72-game regular season – the team’s third overall and first since the coronavirus pandemic wiped out an impending playoff run in March of 2020 – is set to begin Oct. 22 when the Mariners host the Worcester Railers. Both teams took a hiatus during the 2020-21 season, as did roughly half the ECHL franchises, including all six teams in the North Division.

“This is a little bit of good news,” said Danny Briere, president of operations. “We feel like things are starting to turn around.”

The Mariners had signed 15 players and were making plans to play last winter before officially pulling the plug in early November. Fourteen ECHL teams opted to continue while a dozen are sitting out a regular season scheduled to wrap up in early June, followed by playoffs.

Although some of the Mariners eventually signed with other teams in the ECHL, SPHL and in Europe, Portland retains their rights for the upcoming season.

“I think it’s awesome that a lot of the players are playing,” said Mariners Coach Riley Armstrong. “That’s the one thing I didn’t want is for guys to lose a year of development.”

Armstrong said he has remained in touch both with players who signed elsewhere and those who didn’t play over the winter.

“From the standpoint of guys returning, we’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “They didn’t just sit on the couch and collect the quarantine weight that I did.”

Six of the first seven games are scheduled at Cross Insurance Arena. The upcoming schedule also includes a first-ever trip to Florida for the Mariners and a new divisional opponent. Trois-Rivières of Quebec is replacing the franchise in Brampton, Ontario.

The trip from Portland to Quebec takes roughly half the 11-hour bus ride to Brampton, assuming federal authorities reopen the border between Canada and the United States.

“That’s the one hurdle,” Armstrong said.

Another challenge is to ensure social distancing for spectators at an indoor sporting event. Current state guidelines allow 50 percent capacity if six-foot social guidelines can be followed. Later this month the state plans to allow 75 percent of capacity.

In a rink that holds 6,200 seats for hockey, that theoretical limit would be 4,650. Pod grouping may further shrink that number. The Mariners average attendance in 2019-20 was 2,685.

“We have different models depending on restrictions,” said Briere. “Our plan is to follow the guidelines from the state and the city of Portland to make sure everybody feels safe. That’s the most important part, that our fans are safe attending a game.”

The lack of games and revenue resulted in the team laying off six members of the front-office staff, a reduction from 11 to five. Briere said new hires are in the works.

“We’re definitely ramping back up,” he said, “now that we have a little more clarity with the schedule release.”

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