Less than a week after the Maine Mariners revealed the logo and colors they’ll wear to play ECHL hockey in 2018, the folks who run Cross Insurance Arena introduced another minor-league sports team.
This one will play football in the same building.
The Maine Mammoths are coming to downtown Portland, a National Arena League expansion franchise that will play here next spring and summer.
“As we’re gearing down, these guys behind me, they’re gearing up,” said Matt Herpich, general manager of the arena, at a Tuesday news conference introducing officials from the league as well as the head coach and quarterback of the Mammoths. “Their season schedule is outside our normal booking window … so we go from a venue that normally operates nine months out of the year to – if these guys can make the playoffs – operating 12 months out of the year.”
Although a schedule for the seven-team (or possibly eight-team) league has yet to be released, the season is likely to begin in April and last 15 weeks. Four teams continue with playoffs, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 11 and 25.
“Opening kickoff for Portland should be around April 14,” said Chris Siegfried, commissioner of the NAL, which is entering its second season with only three of the original franchises, possibly a fourth if the Monterrey (Mexico) Steel can overcome earthquake damage and field a team again in 2018. “We’re finalizing the schedule right now.”
Monterrey was one of the four playoff teams in the NAL’s inaugural season. The others – league champion Jacksonville (Florida) Sharks, runners-up Columbus (Georgia) Lions and Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania) Steelhawks – are joined by expansion franchises in Trenton (Jersey Flight), Worcester (Massachusetts Pirates), Greensboro (Carolina Cobras) and Portland.
The league agreed to a three-year lease at Cross Insurance Arena, with a two-year extension if both parties are satisfied. Herpich said he plans to formally sign the lease Wednesday.
Mitch Berkowitz, chair of the board of trustees for the arena, said the deal would not have been possible without a $34 million renovation in 2013-14 that included expanded locker room facilities, club spaces and suites.
“The building investments are paying dividends,” Berkowitz said. “Without the work, we would not have been able to host another tenant.”
Jeff Bouchy, chair of the NAL’s expansion committee, said the Portland and Carolina franchises are owned by National Sports Ventures, a Georgia-based company owned by himself, Rob Storm, Steve Curran and Richard Maslia. The first three men are part of the Florida Sharks ownership group and hail from Jacksonville. Maslia lives in Atlanta but went to school at Curry College, just outside of Boston.
“We’ll come, start the team and we’ll operate it,” Bouchy said. “If somebody wants to buy it, great. It’s already running. We’ll drop the keys off. It’s perfect. If they don’t want to buy it, we’ll keep it. Either way, we’re completely happy.”
Last season NAL players earned $150 per game with a $50 bonus for winning. Bouchy said the team will provide housing, two meals per day and all medical care.
Training camp is expected to begin three weeks before the first game. Each team has a roster of 24, with 21 players in uniform for games.
Bouchy said he expects the Mammoths to have eight home games and seven on the road. A pair of season tickets will sell for $99, he said.
Will Riley, a native of Hampton, New Hampshire, who works in Boston as a financial planner, will be Maine’s team president.
He played semipro football in Boston and indoor football for the since-folded New Hampshire Brigade, which played in Manchester as part of the now-defunct Can-Am League.
Riley, 31, said of the NAL: “It’s a good business model. There’s a line of credit you have to have to be approved by the league, so there won’t be any teams folding.”
Riley said the team’s nickname was inspired by the 1959 discovery of a partial mammoth skeleton in Scarborough. A cast and parts of the original tusk reside at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.
“It’s exciting they would pick such a creature because it’s part of our history,” said Dr. Paula T. Work, the museum’s curator of zoology. “It roamed on our native landscape.”
James Fuller, 48, who played briefly in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles, will be the head coach
He has nearly two decades of coaching experience with indoor football, which is played eight-against-eight on a field of 50 yards with goal posts nine feet apart and 15 feet off the ground.
“I’ve been in this (sport) a long time and I’ve been with some franchises that weren’t so good,” Fuller said. “I can tell right off the bat that this is different. Everybody cares about what’s going on around here, everybody has something invested in what we’re doing here, and we look forward to putting together a team and a product that can make everybody proud.”
Fuller served as offensive coordinator last season for the Bismarck (North Dakota) Bucks of Champions Indoor Football, one of the five arena leagues currently operating in the United States. His quarterback in Bismarck, Jonathan Bane, is the first player signed by Maine.
Bane and Fuller also worked together for the now-defunct Richmond (Virginia) Raiders, who played in the Professional Indoor Football League.
“I’ve got a good vibe about this whole thing,” said Bane, who arrived at his Portland hotel with Fuller after midnight Monday, walked to a convenience store and wound up talking football with the clerk for about 45 minutes.
“Coach is throwing together an awesome roster. We’re going to come to this thing and compete right away, and try to get to the championship game and see if we can’t bring a trophy up to Maine.”
Bane, 26, who grew up in Texas, said his ultimate goal is to reach the NFL or possibly the Canadian Football League.
“You continue to work and work to get there,” he said, “but at the same time, I’m a Maine Mammoth right now and I couldn’t be more excited.”