PORTLAND, ME – OCTOBER 13: Maine Mariners Riley Bourbonnais passes the puck in front of the net against Adirondack Thunder Saturday, October 13, 2018. (Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Professional hockey returned Saturday night to downtown Portland after an absence of two years, and a crowd of more than 5,291 gathered to bear witness.

The final score wasn’t what they wanted – Adiondack Thunder 6, Mariners 3 – but still … hockey.

“Who doesn’t love hockey?” wondered Jaclyn Bergmann, 32, of Auburn as she whiled away the final minutes before the start at Cross Insurance Arena listening to her two daughters perform with Camp of Rock. Behind her, three dozen fans waited to purchase clothing and other merchandise bearing the Mariners’ logo.

Bergmann wore a black Boston Bruins sweatshirt. Outside, through a bank of windows, she could see the Old Port skyline and masts from sailboats in Portland Harbor as morning rain had given way to clear afternoon sunshine.

“You’re living in the wrong state,” Bergmann continued, “if you don’t like winter and hockey.”

These Mariners are named after the inhabitants of the newly constructed Cumberland County Civic Center in 1977 who played in the American Hockey League as the Philadelphia Flyers’ top farm club.

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The originals wore orange and black, and won the Calder Cup in their first two seasons. Their three championship banners hang from the rafters. These Mariners wear navy blue and green, and play one tier below in the ECHL.

After so much anticipation, the Mariners stumbled at the start. Adirondack scored just over a minute into the opening period and converted two of its next six shots to make matters look bleak for the home team.

Midway through the first, with the Mariners on a power play, Jason Salvaggio found the top corner of the net on a one-timer from atop the right circle to spark the night’s biggest roar for the first goal in team history.

That was the high point for 9-year-old Henry Beauparlant, wearing a newly purchased Mariners hat and attending the game with his parents, Steve and Kathy. Steve grew up in Lewiston but now lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

He said for the same price as two Bruins tickets, he bought a five-game Mariners promotional package for himself, his wife and his son.

“It’s a good deal and this is pretty good hockey,” he said. “We’re having a great time. I can see they’re kind of shaking the bugs out a little bit.”

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Even the big crowd seemed a little unsure of itself after two years without hockey. Steve figured a “Let’s go Mariners” chant might have too many syllables to roll easily off 5,000 tongues.

Despite their slow start, the Mariners proved a spunky bunch. They scored another power-play goal, this one courtesy of Ryan Culkin, to make it 3-2 early in the second period. But the one-goal deficit lasted only 35 seconds as Conor Riley of Adirondack jammed the puck past Maine goaltender Brandon Halverson for a 4-2 Thunder lead.

Alex Kile, who over the summer became the first player to sign a contract with the Mariners, deftly tucked a backhand into the net to make it 5-3 with just under eight minutes remaining in the second.

A freak injury to referee Steven Rouillard, who got hit in the face with a puck, led to both teams being sent to their locker rooms and the ice being resurfaced with 2:32 still on the clock.

That time was tacked on after the break, with only a brief respite before starting the third period.

Five minutes into the third, syllables be damned, the Portland faithful followed a particularly spirited offensive flurry with a “Let’s Go Mariners” chant punctuated by five claps.

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Not coincidentally, the season’s first fight broke out between Brycen Martin of Maine and Adirondack’s Riley, not far from the Mariners’ bench.

After being separated, Martin skated first to the penalty box, flinging both arms in the air to further exhort the crowd.

Yes, hockey’s back.

“What I really like,” Kathy Beauparlant said, “is everyone’s enthusiasm for being here.”


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