LEWISTON – Look out, baseball.

Move over, football.

And basketball? Step aside, please.

Even though the humidity levels outside the Colisee reached close to 90 percent and the temperature climbed close to 80, the air inside was chilled and the fans dressed accordingly as the Lewiston Maineiacs officially opened their 2004-05 training camp on Thursday to applause from approximately 800 people, all of them excited to have hockey back so early.

“It doesn’t get any better than being able to watch hockey, watch baseball and still play 18 holes of golf in the morning,” said Lane Feldman of Turner, a sheriff’s deputy and host to a player last season. “I don’t know what more there is to say. It’s great.”

“For someone that loves hockey, you want to see the best around,” said Bob McDonough of Lewiston. “This is the best in the state, and it’s great that it’s back.”

The start of camp this year is a week early when compared to last year, but the organization is admittedly in much better shape now than it was at this time last year.

“It’s kind of eerie, really,” said Maineiacs vice president and governor Matt McKnight. “We’re waiting for something bad to happen and it just hasn’t yet.”

And not just from a logistical stand. Season ticket sales have tripled over last year, and on Thursday alone the team sold 23 new season tickets, bringing the official count to 1,489.

“Selling 23 in one afternoon is incredible,” said McKnight. “The difference is that last year we were selling promises and dreams, and this year we are selling reality.”

Many of those season-ticket holders were in the crowd as the players skated in the first of four intersquad sessions on Thursday night. The four teams made up of the 55 players that have reported to camp so far played in one 80-minute game each. Each game was divided into two 40-minute halves, giving the coaches – and the fans – a chance to see several facets of each player’s game.

“It gives them a better opportunity to see each other and learn to play with one another,” said Lewiston resident Gerry Doyon. “It’s great for us, too, because we can see how they develop over the four days.”

The players were surprised to see such a large fan turnout for what some of them called “just a few practices.”

“Last year was great, and it’s just getting better,” said returning defenseman Chad Denny. “It’s great to see the fans support us like this.”

With three more days at the Colisee, and with two home scrimmages at the Kennebec Ice Arena in Hallowell, fans will have a few more opportunities to see the team before coaches make final cuts and training begins in earnest for the upcoming season.

For fans on Thursday, though, it was good to get a taste, even if it meant wearing long pants and shirts in hot, sticky weather on the way to the rink.

“It’s time for hockey,” said Doyon as he sipped a cup of hot coffee. “The passion these kids show is enough to bring anyone back.”


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