As the Portland Pirates leave town, a former player remembers the team’s swashbuckling first season.
[W]hen we heard the Portland Pirates were moving their American Hockey League franchise to Springfield, Massachusetts, we called Eric Fenton to rummage through memories of the team’s 1993–94 inaugural (and championship) season. Fenton, a South Portland native who won an NCAA title at UMaine, was the first Pirates player ever signed. A standout college center, he moved to wing with the Pirates and transitioned from a finesse game to a grinding, physical brand of hockey. He told us what it was like to be hometown hero in a hockey-hungry city.
The city was really buzzing about the team. It reminded me of when the Maine Mariners were winning Calder Cups back in the ’70s. As a kid, I fell in love with hockey going to those games. So to have the Pirates want to sign me was surreal. I couldn’t believe what a big deal the team made about it. They held a press conference and invited the South Portland mayor. There were news cameras everywhere. It was kind of silly.
The transition wasn’t always easy, though. I was a local kid, so everyone around town had high expectations. My whole family came to pretty much every game, and friends always wanted tickets. But the coaching staff and other players were kind of like, “Who’s this guy?” I had to prove myself, and it felt like there was added pressure to come out of the gates strong. I had my ups and downs, like any rookie does.
My first fight happened in the preseason. It was a pretty vicious line brawl. I remember in that moment worrying about how I’d survive playing that style of hockey, but I also loved the adrenaline of it. Our team was probably the toughest in the league, and that always made me feel tougher than I really was. I was just a middleweight, fighting heavyweights.
I heard a story about a local guy who ran into [head coach Barry] Trotz at a bar. He wanted to know what Trotz thought about my game, and Trotz said, “Fenton? He’ll fight anybody. He won’t win, but he’ll fight anybody.” Another time, I was in Bill’s Pizza on Commercial Street after a game. It was kind of late, and I was sitting with a teammate eating pizza when someone in the restaurant went, “Hey! There’s that guy who got his ass kicked in a fight tonight.” I was just like, “Yup, that’s me.”
Scoring my first goal was a great feeling, but I actually couldn’t tell you that much about how it happened. We were playing at home against the Albany River Rats. Later in the game, a defenseman made a good move on me, and I lost an edge and fell into their goalie. I ended up separating his shoulder. Of course, they thought I did it on purpose, so it caused a huge melee on the ice. After all that, I barely remembered that I’d scored a goal.
All in all, it was really fun to be a part of those games. The fans were great, and the arena was electric. I hate to see hockey leaving the area.
— as told to Will Grunewald
Image courtesy of the Portland Pirates.