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Boy, those NHL owners sure look smart, eh? By locking out their players and taking a hard line on insisting there be a salary cap in the new collective bargaining agreement it looks like they’ve managed to eliminate an entire season of hockey, if not their entire existence as a major American sport. Maybe there are fans in Detroit, or Montreal or Calgary, who are broken up over this, but the collective ambivalence in New England is staggering (other than at NESN, where they must be shitting their pants trying to figure out new ways to extend their Red Sox coverage year-round).
I’ve never been a huge Bruins fan, but I certainly followed them in the standings and could converse pretty intelligently about how they were doing. I like Joe Thornton a lot. Samsonov was exciting to watch, even on television. Bergeron seemed to be the real deal. I can honestly say I was pretty upset about the first-round collapse in last year’s playoffs. I didn’t enter into a week-long drinking binge like some folks around here, but I certainly groused a lot and expressed general disbelief.
Now, I don’t miss the Bruins at all in the general course of things. Maybe once a week I’ll think, "Huh. Strange not seeing the Bruins on TV." Or I’ll think, "Jeez. The Globe seems thin with no Bruins coverage." That’s definitely the extent of it, though.
When the Sox were on strike in 1994, I was like Linus without my blanket.
It could be that the surreal success of the Patriots and Red Sox euphoria is combining to make me not care about the Bruins. If the Patsies were five and five and the Sox had just finished 10 games out, I’d probably be more distraught. I’d also be the worse for it, though, as I’d still be devoting the hockey portion of my brain toward the lackluster Bruins (really, is Harry Sinden ever going to be John Henry?) and not saving any for the great hockey we have here in Maine. Not having the millionaires around has opened my eyes to some great athletes playing in Orono, Lewiston, and right here in Portland, and it’s plenty interesting.
Top of the list is UMaine. Major college hockey is tough to get a read on. UMaine is ranked 12th in the nation (as of last Saturday’s win over Providence), yet only had a record of nine and six, as of this writing. Nine and six gets you 12th in the country? Even college basketball isn’t that forgiving. For hockey, though, when parity hits, there simply aren’t any cupcakes out there. Everybody who bothers to carry a Division One program is pretty damn good. So even when you go down to play Merrimack College (like you’ve ever heard of them for anything other than hockey), you’ve got to make sure you lace them up tight.
Also, you had to love the irony wrapped up in that Providence game. Ron Artest had just been suspended for the rest of the season because he couldn’t keep his temper after having been hit with a cup of beer, yet not a single punch was thrown after a Providence forward knocked out stellar UMaine goalie Tim Howard with a cheap shot that left him with a sprained knee and bum ribs, enough to keep him out of a couple important games.
Plus, keep an eye on Michel Léveillé. He’s just a sophomore, out of Quebec City, but he played some pro hockey before coming to Maine and his hat trick in the Providence game was eye-popping.
Then there are the Lewiston Maineiacs, members of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. No, they’re not that great, record-wise. At 10-12-4, they’re sitting 11th out of 16 teams with 24 points. But their impact on Lewiston has been impressive. First, they’ve drawn so many people to the Central Maine Civic Center that they renamed the thing the Colisee. Second, they play a great brand of hockey in the QMJHL. The Maineiacs have scored 85 goals in their first 26 games, and their leading scorer, Alex Bourret, has 41 points in his first 23 games and is plus-18. That’s fun to watch.
If people could just get it out of their heads that they’re watching "future NHL stars" and into their heads that they’re simply watching phenomenally fast and talented young hockey players, they’ll have an idea of what they’re not missing right now.
Finally, we have the Pirates, playing right here in downtown Portland. Even with a few players who would normally be at the next level, which has made for better hockey, this still isn’t thrilling stuff. The Pirates have notched just 43 goals in 17 games (that’s 3.27 per game for the Maineiacs, 2.53 per game for the Pirates), leading scorer Trent Whitfield has just 15 points in 17 games, and not a single player on the roster has a positive plus/minus.
However, the Pirates are 8-7-2 and they’ve been winning shoot-outs (new this year in the AHL), and they’ve got a goalie in Maxime Ouellet who’s averaging more than 30 saves a game and turning shots away with a .911 save percentage, which is better than respectable. If that’s not enough to get you to a game, at least the Pirates are doing their part to market themselves. They’re pushing this whole "Saturday night is hockey night in Portland," and just about every bar within half a mile of the Civic Center has some kind of game-night promotion that means cheap beer for you. Plus, you can party with the Pirates after games, at the Stadium.
That’s effort that should be appreciated by the ticket-buying public. And, hey, the Celtics (and the rest of the NBA) are so bad that once the Patriots season is over (should be about around February 7), you’re going to need something to pay attention to — Patrice Bergeron’s visits to Portland as a player for the Providence Bruins could suffice.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Game On archive.
Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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