Readers’ Guide to the Fans of Maine Hockey, Part I: Recent Woes

One issue that has been in Maine’s Hockey program has been the fans of the program. Their voice was heard as they’re lack of participation led to the firing of long-tenured head coach Tim Whitehead. Now in this new season, the issue is getting the fans to come back and filling the Alfond once again. But even over the last few years, average attendance has been dropping over the last handful of years with the exception of the 2011-12 season, which was the last time Maine made the tournament.

Average attendance has only gone over 5000 once since 2008

Average attendance has only gone over 5000 once since 2007-08. Source

The average attendance has gone down in recent years following the 2007-08 season. In that offseason, longtime assistant coach and recruiter Grant Standbrook retired after being with Maine for 18 years. Standbrook’s recruiting brought some of the best players in hockey. His absence was felt as Maine’s next two seasons were marred with losing season, and dwindling fan attendance hitting record lows in 2009-10, in terms of this historic low, attendance records only go as far back as the 2002-03 season on USCHO’s website. But I can say it goes back several years, at least to when the Alfond’s capacity was expanded from its original capacity of 3,800 to over 5000 in the early 90’s. Though the 2009-10 campaign saw some success, Maine was able to make a run all the way to the Hockey East championship, but ultimately falling to BC in overtime.

Maine's performance on the ice has been less than stellar in recent years. Courtesy of the BDN

Maine’s performance on the ice has been less than stellar in recent years. Courtesy of the BDN

This caused a spike in attendance, 2010-11 saw an increase but marred with disappointment yet again as Maine would be swept out of the Hockey East playoffs. But that didn’t stop people from coming to the games in 2011-12. A 3-game home playoff series that came off a great run of games in the second half of the season saw its capacity, depending on what’s considered the Alfond’s capacity was either over-capacity, or very close to full capacity. Maine saw it’s run come to an abrupt halt in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

This led to growing frustration with the fan base as attendance dwindled, alongside the product on the ice did as well. Attendance began to become an issue as no matter the opponent came in, Maine found it hard to put 4,500 people in the seats with the exception of two games, UNH (11/4) and BU (2/16). Maine never got it together, and was eliminated in the Hockey East playoffs yet again.

In the offseason following the disappointing finish, Maine finally dropped the hammer on head coach Tim Whitehead. Maine AD at the time Steve Abbott at the time said a big reason for Whitehead’s firing was the decline in season ticket sales, claiming they went from 3,600 down to 1,900 season tickets last season. If there’s one thing that’s evident, it’s that fan participation has been an issue for this program. The fan’s help create an atmosphere, that creates a home-ice advantage for the Black Bears.

A side-note to the loss in season ticket sales, ticket prices are as follows, $23 for seats in the bleacher, $50 for seats in the lower bowl or “preferred” seating. It can be hard to get a sellout crowd when asking for $50 a ticket when the product isn’t always. pR

The Student Section is a vital part of Maine's attendance

The Student Section is a vital part of Maine’s attendance

Declining student attendance hurt the cause for the Black Bears, as I heard stories from a few years ago about how you had to get in line at least 2 hours before the game to get good seats. Late into last season, waiting at least 2 hours didn’t have the same effect as the one game I attended late last year, I along with my girlfriend were some of the first people in line that night against rival BU.

So now here we are, it’s late November and we’re well into the 2013-14 season. We’re now 11 games into the season and Maine’s numbers are beginning to look a little like the old days. Maine’s hosted seven games so far, and average attendance is about where it was last year. Red Gendron acknowledges this, in a press conference earlier this season he said, “You gotta win to put the fannies in the seats.” Really at the end of the day, that’s the recipe for success, winning games. It’s what led to them having great attendance that led to expansion of the capacity when the team became prominent in the late 80’s & early 90’s.

Maine saw early attendance success with the game against Bentley drawing 4500 people. But the following weekend against Umass (non-conference series) saw average attendance of 3700 over two games. With Maine’s winning way so far, it has reflected on the attendance records, the second game against UVM saw 4600 people attended, BU’s game saw 4494, and most recently BC’s game drew a sellout crowd of 5124.

“I didn’t see any empty seats. I don’t care how good you are, when you come to Maine and it’s rocking the way it was tonight, it is a pretty tough place to play.” said Red Gendron after Maine’s victory over BC on Saturday night.

The question is, will the Maine fans keep flocking to Alfond Arena? Well the way this team’s playing, you might expect games in the second semester to be sellouts. Maine seems to be figuring it out and manage to keep winning, the fans will flock to Alfond Arena once again. The rest of this semester might be tough because of the football’s team playoff run (Maine’s hockey game got bumped from a Sat to Fri night to accommodate the game.

Part of the legend that comes with Alfond Arena comes from the great fans of Maine hockey. In a recent poll conducted by NESN, fans voted that Alfond Arena has the best home ice advantage in Hockey East. Many opponents have considered the Alfond one of the toughest venues to play at on the road. Maine hopes, as well as myself hopes that fans will continue to show up and support their Black Bears for the years to come.

Check back in next week for Part II of the Readers’ Guide to the Fans of Maine Hockey series.

Alex Quirk

About Alex Quirk

Alex covers UMaine Hockey for WMEB Sports, the sports department at WMEB 91.9 FM, as the sideline reporter/live-tweeter during the games. .