PORTLAND, Maine — The rink at the edge of town is as nondescript as any other minor-league practice facility, with one exception.
Down on the ice, still the smallest person on skates, Danny Briere is gesturing with his hand and his stick, explaining some of the intricacies of working along the boards to 26-year-old Terrence Wallin, a Yardley native and assistant captain of the ECHL's newest team, the Maine Mariners.
It is an odd place to find a retired star who earned about $70 million over 17 NHL seasons, including six with the Flyers. It smacks of a hard-luck, hardship story, but Briere, 41, is anything but that – unless you consider his frustration with unloading his New Jersey Shore house to be hardship.
No, he is on the ice because, as this team's vice president of operations – i.e., general manager — he was invited there by its rookie coach, Riley Armstrong, who has, in a very short time, become sort of an assistant general manager as well.
"I talk to him,'' Armstrong said, "more than I talk to my wife.''
The team, in a league two tiers from the NHL, is new. The name is not, familiar to any Flyers fan who remembers the days of the Bullies, of hoisting Cups. The Flyers weren't the only ones – the Maine Mariners, their American Hockey League affiliate in those days, hoisted a pair of Calder Cup trophies in the same time frame, creating a Flyers following and hockey culture in these parts that had not existed before.
"When Ed Snider first brought the team here, they did a first-class job,'' said Frank Bathe, a former Flyer and one of the Mariners' original players who remained in Portland and raised a family there. "We grew hockey that way. Youth hockey started up, and over the years high school hockey picked up. There's more teams, more programs. We've even got a few kids in the NHL now.''
Biddeford's Brian Dumoulin is a Penguins defenseman, Kennebunkport's Garnet Hathaway is with the Calgary Flames.
Nonexistent when Bathe first arrived, the University of Maine team has won NCAA championships and produced superstars like Paul Kariya. In any given year, dozens of Maine-born players fill out college rosters. Back when this reporter was an assistant coach for Kennebunk High School in 1982, the team traveled more than 2 ½ hours each way on some school nights just to fill out its high school schedule.
Back then, recalled Wayne Schaab, another Mariners hero of the '80s who remained, even the pro team had to travel to practice on some days, to an unheated rink in Yarmouth, a 30-minute drive from Portland, and even farther from the coastal towns like Old Orchard Beach, where players such as Schaab found cheap offseason housing.
Back then, players drove up the coast to Yarmouth on practice days, dressed in the cold, skated, sweated, got back into their clothes, and drove back to their homes.
"We hated that rink,'' said Schaab, now a financial adviser in Portland. "But we loved hockey that much.''
On this October day, players partly dressed in their heated dressing room at the nearby Cross Insurance Arena — the same building in which their predecessors wore the orange and black, the "M" logo mimicking the Flyers "P.'' They traveled two minutes down the street to a local rink built during that surge in popularity, and then back to their swanky – by minor-league standards – dressing room.
A meal was supplied upon their return. Team housing – an inexpensive condominium – is down the street. A town with limited lifestyle options when the original Mariners played here, Portland today is thriving with start-up tech businesses, a bustling waterfront scene, and millennials galore.
Just this month, Bon Appetit named it Restaurant City of the Year.
This team is different, too. The jersey players wore in an opening night 6-3 loss to Adirondack was the blue and green more associated with Seattle than Broad Street. The logo, with the end of a trident serving as the second letter of the state's abbreviation (ME), is original as well.
And for good reason: They are owned by Comcast Spectacor, but their only affiliation, a loose one, is with the New York Rangers, who have pledged to supply about a half-dozen of the team's 20-odd players.
The rest had to be assembled by Briere and Armstrong – hence the nonstop phone conversations over the summer.
Comcast Spectacor manages the Cross Insurance Arena through Spectra, its venue operations subdivision. And when the Bruins farm team, the Portland Pirates, pulled out of there three years ago, they needed something to fill the 36 dates — not counting playoffs – that went with them.
So a dormant ECHL team from Anchorage, Alaska, was purchased and moved here. Shortly thereafter, Briere, newly remarried and seemingly rooted in Philadelphia, was offered the opportunity to run it – with no experience whatsoever.
"At first I was like, `What are we talking about exactly?'' he said. "Am I going to have to move there? What's going to be my role? You have to build the team, market the team, decide 100 things. Playing it for so many years you don't realize how much has to be done.
"I was scared to death."
Talent and self-doubt
Once, when Danny Briere was half the age he is now, he teetered on the brink of a career, not sure if he was cut out to play professional hockey, not sure if he belonged. Peter Laviolette, who coached him to the brink of a Stanley Cup as a Flyer back in 2010, once remarked that he never had a player with such a combination of talent and self-doubt.
"I've been like that since I was 12, 13 years old,'' Briere was saying after practice that day. "I just needed one person to go against me to get that way.''
It all sounds so funny, so bizarre even now. Briere, at 5-foot-9, played 17 seasons in the NHL, amassing 928 points overall, which included 116 points in 124 playoff games. But playing for six franchises, he also had the full monty of hockey experiences:
Discarded by Phoenix, which drafted him in the first round;
Celebrated and even adored at times in Buffalo and Philadelphia, where he built his reputation as a clutch performer;
Demonized and derided by fans in Montreal – the hometown he jilted when he signed here as a free agent and later disappointed when age and injuries finally caught up to him.
"It's probably still part of my psyche,'' he continued. "I like being uncomfortable, walking into a place and knowing that the people around you know way more than you do. You're trying to catch up and get to learn what they know.''
For Briere, that has meant acting like that unsure 20-year-old again. From the moment he retired in 2015 to when he was offered this, Briere had enthusiastically embraced Flyers president Paul Holmgren's invitation to become an unpaid management intern, bouncing around the various Comcast Spectacor offices at the Wells Fargo Center, sitting with accountants and marketeers and hockey types like Holmgren.
Money, he had – Briere's eight-year contract with the Flyers alone paid him $52 million.
Knowledge, he didn't.
So he listened and learned. Or tried to. He was confused at times, he said, overwhelmed at others.
"The first few meetings I would go to, everything was 100 feet over my head,'' he said. "They were throwing all these letters around — PNLs and FSEs, this amount of this. I had no clue about that stuff. A couple of the women in the office noticed how uncomfortable I was. And they made me a cheat sheet that included descriptions of all the acronyms they were using.''
Slowly, he caught on. Turned out Full Service Equivalent – FSE – was a term used when partial season-ticket packages added up to one full one. Pretty basic stuff. PNL – profit and loss – that was a little more detailed. But by the time he, Holmgren, and Comcast Spectacor vice president Mike Scanlon boarded a plane for the ECHL's annual summer meeting in May 2017, Briere was ready to speak the language.
At least Holmgren thought so.
And he told Briere that …
… On the plane to Vegas.
"I was like, `What??!'' said Briere. "I don't think I'm ready for this.''
He crammed that night in his Vegas hotel room and again in the morning, digesting the material so well that when the PowerPoint presentation malfunctioned the next day, he simply recited all the pertinent figures associated with the pictures on the screen.
"Why it's going to be successful,'' he said. "Where you're going to get your revenues from. Why it makes sense.
"It was nerve-wracking. But I survived it. And in the end it was good for me. It was one of those moments where I was like, I better step up to the plate. Almost like when I played.
"I was in the zone.''
Eyes and ears
Briere is in the zone again. A hoagie in hand – they're called "grinders'' in these parts – he is talking about this new phase of his life with the enthusiasm of a first-time father. He will be the eyes and ears of Comcast Spectacor from Philly, he said, watching the games through the ECHL's streaming option, leaning on the experienced front office he and Holmgren have assembled in Portland, dropping in for a couple of weekends a month for a boots-on-the-ground look, maybe even a little coaching help with the team.
He will be present when needed, although the "Danny Briere'' effect in these parts seems negligible at best – and perhaps unneeded. He was around Portland all summer and into the fall, and no one has asked for an autograph. And yet the team's opener drew 5,200 fans for a building that holds about 6,500.
Briere and his vice president of business operations, Adam Goldberg, aren't banking on that to continue. They're hoping to average around 3,000 for the season, about what the AHL Pirates did in their final season here.
With a league-mandated weekly salary cap of $13,470 per team, a half-filled building for a new team two levels from the top would be a great start, said Briere.
And a great start for him.
Where it goes from here, he isn't sure. He likes being on the ice, teaching, "but I don't think I have the demeanor to be a head coach, to deciding the fates of people's lives,'' he said. His was one of those lives once. And for a while, his future was uncomfortably uncertain.
As it is now. He's newly remarried, to an Air Force physician who has been deployed four times, and the two of them were looking forward to spending more time together as her career settled into one place.
"There's no plan,'' he said. "But I'm having so much fun with this. If I wake up in December and say this is not for me, I'm not having fun anymore, then we'll find a way to change. But I don't see that happening. I'm 100 percent aboard this Maine Mariners thing.''