Hockey support waning

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Either the people of greater Lewiston/Auburn don’t want a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise, or they have a funny way of showing that they do.

Fifteen minutes before the start of Monday night’s Game 6 between the Lewiston Maineiacs and the Halifax Mooseheads, there were more blue seats open in the Colisee than at a regular-season high school hockey game.

At least it seemed that way.

That’s not to say that the fans who did show up weren’t vocal. Far from it. But when only 2,006 people (officially) show up for the most important game of the season, there is certainly cause for concern.

“We’re battling something here in this area that Canadian franchises don’t,” said Maineiacs Vice President and Governor Matt McKnight. “It’s simple that in a Canadian market, junior hockey is at the top of everyone’s mind. It’s the first thing that people talk about, it’s the first thing that you read on the front page of the paper, it’s the first thing that any branch of the media talks about. Here, we’ve got to share the spotlight with a lot of other sports, so it’s a tougher battle. We just have to find the right way to go about it.”

A look around the team’s offices will tell you things have changed, even since the beginning of this year. There are erasable boards filled with sales ideas, some with targets and goals, and still others with promotional ideas for specific games next season.

“You can plan all you want and do everything right, but there’s no better marketing tool than a dynamite performance on the ice,” McKnight said. “And that’s more than one game. It’s something that grips the whole community, and that would be a long playoff drive.”

While it’s easy to agree with McKnight, winning isn’t the only thing that should bring people to the rink.

The fact that the Maineiacs were fun to watch – they were fast, disciplined and were in almost every game – should have been enough. Look at the stats. They lost 19 regular-season games by one goal – 19 games that could have gone either way. That’s exciting hockey.

Halifax had a bigger section of fans behind their own bench at the Colisee 15 minutes before Monday’s game than the Maineiacs had in Section 11, a block of seats at center ice behind the penalty boxes that is home to many of Lewiston’s elected officials.

Sure, more people filled in as the game started, but come on. Barely 2,000 fans? For an elimination game? Pathetic.

Go on with your excuses, too – it was a Monday night, there was no promotion, it’s too expensive.

No.

People didn’t show up because people in the United States don’t like to pay to see teams fail.

This must be why NASCAR is so popular: There is a guaranteed winner at every race, and while some people have their favorites, there is no real “home team” to cheer for at any given track.

This is junior hockey, where reality still lives. There will always be a winner, and yes, always a loser. Any true hockey fan will go see a good hockey game, something the Maineiacs provided more often that not. This year’s team had flare. It had five players drafted into the National Hockey League and four more on this year’s draft board. It had a whirling dervish name Stefano Giliati, the fan favorite, and it had a bona fide NHL draft pick between the pipes in Jonathan Bernier.

Their opponents came in with similarly impressive credentials. No, Sidney Crosby wasn’t playing, but Guillaume Latendresse of Drummondville was, and he came within a skate blade of playing in the NHL this season. His brother, Olivier, was a gem for Val d’Or, and while you missed Alexandre Radulov and Angelo Esposito when the Quebec Remparts were in town, the league champion Moncton Wildcats were in town four times, and two of the team’s six losses to them this season were of the one-goal variety.

There used to be a passion for hockey in the area unmatched by any other in Maine. Is it possible that Portland has now supplanted Lewiston as Maine’s “hockey town,” thanks to the resurgence of the Pirates? Cheverus has won the past two state high school hockey titles at the hands of Lewiston High School.

It’s possible, but it doesn’t have to be true.

The front office is doing its part. It handed out its new ticket packages to patrons Monday, and has started work on a new marketing strategy.

“We might not be growing as fast as we had originally hoped three years ago,” McKnight said, “but we’re certainly going in the right direction. We’ve made a lot of changes this year and there’ll be a lot more changes coming next year. This is a good hockey market. It will be a great hockey market.”

Now it’s up to you. Show the Lewiston Maineiacs you want them here, or lose them.

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