The real question, hockey fans, is not how many teeth Maine Mariner Goaltender Rick St. Croix has, or why each period of hockey in Portland's Civic Center begins with a tinny rendition of that golden oldie, Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag. No, the Maine mystery here is whether or not these Mariners, with their Philadelphia Flyer-style uniforms, are really just a minor league hockey team.
For sure, the Mariners skate in the American Hockey League, which is not the National Hockey League, that being the only "major" group extant. But there is nothing minor about the way the Mariners win—a pair of Calder Cup championships, the AHL's equivalent of the Stanley Cup, the last two seasons. And their nearly new, 6,570-seat arena says big-time, as do the stereo and pinball machines in the home team's locker room, not to mention last Sunday's charter flight from Portland to Binghamton, N.Y. Life in the minors is supposed to be endless bus rides to nowhere, with players who are has-beens or never-will-bes, and sea-level fan support.
Fact is, the Mariners, as Philadelphia's owned-and-operated farm team, are the flip side of the Flyers, a scaled-down but authentic replica of the boys on Broad St. "Everything the Flyers do, we do. It's like shaking hands," says Mariner Defenseman Blake Wesley, Philadelphia's second-round draft pick last summer. Flyer management is Mariner management, and in keeping with the parent organization's class act, the Mariners are run precisely like the Flyers.
The system works on the ice as well as in theory: eight of last year's Calder Cup team members are now playing at the Spectrum, including NHL All-Stars Norm Barnes and Pete Peeters. Until 1977 the Flyers, like most of the NHL teams, had working agreements with independent minor league franchises or shared a club with a fellow NHL member. Ah, but the Canadiens, always four strides ahead of the pack, had their very own farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, and developed young talent in their own image.
"When the Flyers looked at Montreal's consistent success over the years, they realized that having a farm club just for themselves was the only move to make," says Mariner President Ed Anderson.
As the state's first professional team, the Mariners give residents reason to be proud of something other than lobster and Bar Harbor Airlines. "When the team first came up here, players went out of their way to talk to people," says Wayne Fordham, who teaches science at Greely Junior High School in Cumberland, Maine. "Flyer brass marketed the product well: the team invited local people, like students and Boy Scouts, to see games for free. Don't forget, they were dealing with people who had little if any hockey background. And if they were fans of any team, it was the Bruins."
Mainers and Mariners mix easily. "People feel close to us," says Coach Bob McCammon, enjoying his customary waffles and bacon one morning at the Pancake Kitchen. "The Mariners aren't just hockey players, they're neighbors." Other customers stop at his table, scarcely letting him finish a mouthful: "Great game, Coach." "Hey, Bob, you know me, I come to your games."
McCammon spent much of the 1978-79 season in Philadelphia as the successor to Fred Shero as coach of the Flyers. "It was a bad situation for me," he says. "I'd had a few years' experience in the International Hockey League, plus a season here in Maine. I didn't know the NHL or the players. It was nobody's fault, but following a winner like Fred is never easy."
Late in January the Flyers fired McCammon and sent him back to Maine, replacing him in Philly with Mariner Coach Pat Quinn. "The Flyers could have just dumped me, but they let me have this job back," McCammon says. And the people of Maine were pleased to get him back. Instead of regarding McCammon as the man who failed in Philadelphia, Down Easters greeted him with a "Welcome Home Bob" day, complete with red carpet and standing ovation.
Beset by injuries now, the Mariners are in third place in the AHL's North Division and are struggling on the ice, although they put it together last Saturday night and routed Binghamton 9-1 before 5,822 in Portland.
Probably the word that best describes Mariner fans is "loyal." Some live over on Chebeague Island, which is about 10 miles offshore, and come to games via ferryboat. If fights prolong a game, the islanders have a long, cold hustle down to the docks to get the last boat home.
Or take Jackie Smith and Tish Hays. Both women work in Pan Am's New York City office. They started driving to Mariner games two years ago just for fun, and now, says Hays, "It's habit. We have season tickets and we're here every weekend. Sometimes we make road trips, too."
Don't these people know this is a minor league team? "No one thinks of this as minor," says Mariner Defenseman Terry Murray, who has done time all over the minors. "Players in other cities think there's no place like Maine because their own teams have no fans, or the organization doesn't treat them kindly. Being anywhere else in the minors would be minor. Being here is knowing you'll get your chance. You can't really call this minor league hockey."
Just call it a minor phenomenon.