Next?

Much as I highly doubt there’s another team in the Canadian Hockey League fit to share the same rink with the Lewiston Maineiacs, they’re now headed to a tournament called the Memorial Cup.

It’s a nice enough honor. A mite anti-climactic after eight months of grit and sacrifice, but nevertheless.

Canada is so large, and hockey so pervasive in its culture, that no team tough enough to reign in one of its junior leagues should feel like the early-1990s Buffalo Bills if it falls short in this postlude.

Lewiston, Auburn and surrounding hamlets should be ferociously proud of the accomplishment as it stands. This glorious mud-season distraction was prime rib. Consider next weekend’s round-robin gravy.

A dream season is nearly complete. One battle still rages, however. It is the collective need for a franchise and its fandom to expand their team’s reach beyond its current cult following. The work isn’t done.

Consider this not a criticism but a challenge. There are thousands of rabid sports fans within the Twin Cities market, even hockey fans, who don’t identify with the Maineiacs.

I know this because I have encountered at least one at almost every non-hockey assignment this spring. He’s a lacrosse dad. She’s a baseball mom. “Why do you guys devote four pages (the day after a game) to a team of high school-aged kids from Canada?” one summons the nerve to ask.

Delivering a soliloquy to my face earlier this week was an elderly softball fan. Granted, he was the Wilford Brimley stereotype who voiced his disdain for everything about the modern local sporting scene, including me. But his words revealed an alarming disconnect between perception and truth.

“That championship is in the bag because the league wants that team to work out here,” Grumpy said. “I ain’t paying $14 to watch high school kids. Bates Manufacturing (the 1950s amateur team) or the Maine Nordiques (mid-1970s minor league club) would have flattened those guys.”

You get the picture. And they don’t.

Fervent members of the choir plausibly packed Androscoggin Bank Colisee for the series with Shawinigan, Halifax and Rouyn-Noranda, and indisputably jammed the joint for the two home contests with Val-d’Or.

That was a nice start. What this team needs now from you, the serious fan, is the same support during leaner times. And for you, front office employees, to beat this region over the head with the frozen gospel until everyone buys into it.

A dozen current QMJHL players dressing in the NHL next year won’t bridge the chasm. Sixteen killer sports section fronts won’t seal the deal, either.

That is what’s next: Making the Lewiston Maineiacs more than an unbeatable curiosity and truly weaving them into the fabric of this community. Now go forth and give ’em the good news.


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