July 19, 2011

From NEHJ: Fans, players lament loss of Maineiacs

By Bill Keefe

Lewiston Maineiacs fans were loyal and passionate, following the team on road trips to Canada and tailgating in frigid Central Maine mid-winter temperatures. Alexandre Picard, who played two seasons in Lewiston, started the Maineiacs� four-year streak of first-round NHL picks when he was selected eighth overall by Columbus in 2004. (photo: Getty)

There just weren’t enough of them. Or at least not enough who paid to attend games.

It was an eight-year roller-coaster ride. The highs included the 16-1 march to the 2007 President’s Cup, playing in the Memorial Cup and four consecutive first-round NHL picks. Among the lows were rampant speculation the past two years about the team moving out of town and two midseason coaching changes.

Finally, owner Mark Just reached the financial breaking point. After exploring a move, a sale and additional investors, Just sold the team May 31 to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which immediately dissolved it, reducing the league to 17 teams for 2011-12.

“We’re really going to miss them,” said Gail Tarr (Auburn, Maine), a season-ticket holder who had planned on serving as a billet for this upcoming hockey season. “For me to say I’m devastated is an understatement. It’s a great venue, but it didn’t have community support. We loved the Quebec league and the Canadian kids. The economy had a lot to do with it.”

A dispersal draft for Lewiston players was held. A franchise was granted to Sherbrooke, the ownership group led by former NHL goalie Jocelyn Thibeault, to begin play in 2012-13 and restore the league to 18 teams.

Players were dismayed about the team’s breakup and their future, according to their Twitter accounts.

“Can’t sleep knowing what has happened, what a good thing we had going,” left wing Bryce Milson tweeted. He added, “Once a maineiac, always a maineiac.”

From center Matt Bissonnette, “Dreams over boys.”

Also from the web came support via the Maineiacs Nation Facebook page from Suzi Giliati, mother of former Maineiac Stefano, now playing in the AHL.

“We are very sorry that you lost your team,” she wrote. “We spent three wonderful years with you, coming to watch Stefano play, and as we have told some of you before, you are the greatest fans. We loved coming for weekends, your city is awesome, and you always made us feel part of your great Maineiacs family.

“We had so much fun … we wish for you, that a new team comes to your town soon, because fans like you deserve it!”

Speculation and reports of the team’s demise were rampant. The Maineiacs issued a statement two days before the official transaction saying basically the team was exploring all of its options to remain intact.

Players appeared to be left in the dark, with no advance notice of the team’s folding and no concrete information, according to some Twitter comments. Team captain Cameron Critchlow and Milson were tweeting back and forth with Halifax Chronicle-Herald writer Willy Palov to get information on the dispersal draft.

“Why don’t I figure out what is going on about me and the rest of the Maineiacs before the general public?” Milson asked in a tweet.

Defenseman Dillon Fournier, whom the Maineiacs drafted first overall last year, went first in the dispersal draft to Rouyn Noranda.

Defenseman Samuel Carrier went second to Baie-Comeau, and forward Michael Chaput rounded out the top three, landing in next year’s Memorial Cup when he was tabbed by host Shawinigan.

Throughout his tenure, Just — who brought the team from Sherbrooke to Lewiston in 2003 — said he needed to at least break even and that the goal was to have an average attendance of 3,000 fans per game at Androscoggin Bank Colisee. In their best year for attendance, the championship season of 2006-07, the Maineiacs averaged 2,712, or 73.8 percent of capacity, which placed them 10th among the league’s 18 teams.

The low point for average attendance was 2009-10, when Just all but moved the Maineiacs to Boisbriand, Quebec, only to have the move blocked on territorial grounds by the nearby Montreal Juniors. That season, the team averaged 1,853 fans. For their eight-year tenure, the Maineiacs averaged 2,339. The Maineiacs ranked in the bottom half of the league in average attendance each year and were in the bottom third the past two years.

The attendance woes were worsened, according to Just, by the fact that Lewiston was the only American team in the league, which led to higher immigration, travel and health-care costs.

“This is very hard, very hard for me right now,” Just told the Lewiston Sun-Journal. “It’s a very bittersweet evening for me. There’s a relief in all of this, in all honesty. There are debts that I have to pay, and we didn’t have money to pay the things anymore. I’d just depleted everything I had … it was my only choice.

“The work we’ve put in the last three years, and people across the league agreed, what a great team we had. I tried to do everything I could to prevent this from happening. But we also had a great team in the playoffs this year, and we drew no one. The reality of it set in.”
The Maineiacs drew 1,163 for their last home game, a league semifinal on April 27. Their last crowd to hit 3,000 was March 9, 2008.

Conversely, the product on the ice was largely successful. The Maineiacs qualified for the playoffs each year, although for two seasons they were the 16th and final team to quality. They posted winning records in six of eight seasons and won the aforementioned league championship in 2007. This past season, the Maineiacs reached the QMJHL semifinals and had a solid core of players scheduled to return that made them a serious championship contender.

Even more impressive, the Maineiacs were the only QMJHL team to have at least one player drafted in each of the past seven years. The 17 Lewiston players drafted in that time span are the most in the league. Included in that bounty was a four-year streak of first-round picks: Alexandre Picard (2004), Alex Bourret (2005), Jonathan Bernier (2006) and David Perron (2007). Picard, Bernier, Perron, Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Cliché give Lewiston five alumni who have played in the NHL.

“A lot of credit has to go to (former coaches) Mario Durocher, Jeff Guay and Clem Jodoin,” said Ed Harding (Gray, Maine), who was an assistant coach, head coach, assistant GM and GM during his tenure with the Maineiacs from 2003 to 2009, including leading the President’s Cup championship team. “We moved a lot of kids on and gave the fans a good product in that short period of time.”

This year’s Stanley Cup final featured five participants who had competed against Lewiston. Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault also coached forward Maxim Lapierre at Prince Edward Island for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons. From the Bruins, David Krejci played for Gatineau in 2004-05 and 2005-06 and Brad Marchand spent four seasons in the QMJHL from 2004 to 2008 with Moncton, Val d’Or and Halifax. Also, the Maineiacs played against Milan Lucic’s Vancouver Giants in the 2007 Memorial Cup.

A common reason cited for the attendance woes was the cost of tickets. An adult, game-day single ticket cost $15.50, which is 50 cents more than the AHL Portland Pirates. Lewiston ran some ticket specials, including flex ticketing and a family of four special including drinks and popcorn for $44 for weekend games. But several fans cited ticket cost as a concern, especially in a working-class city such as Lewiston with better value not that far away in Portland.

“It was hard to swallow for some people,” Tarr said. “In Portland, there was a promotion for $20; you would get two meals at a restaurant and two tickets to the Portland game.”

Marketing and local community building were also issues. After the aborted move to Boisbriand, the Maineiacs brought on a local partner and tried to strengthen bonds.

“There wasn’t even a sign on the turnpike for Lewiston,” Tarr said. “If fans had the opportunity to be as involved as we were this season from the start, it would have been different.”

There already has been talk of another team coming to Lewiston, possibly for the 2012-13 season. Midwestern-based junior leagues such as the USHL and NAHL have been bandied about, but that seems premature at this point. The professional single-A Federal Hockey League, with a footprint in the Northeast, also is a possibility, perhaps with the Maineiacs name and logo.

Lewiston resident Paul Paradis was also a season-ticket holder who cited hard-hitting defenseman Chad Denny as his all-time favorite Maineiac.

“To be a Manieiac fan was a great time,” Paradis said. “I loved going to every game I could get my butt to, and their leaving really (stunk).
“What I really liked about the kids is they were very friendly and they would do autograph sessions and mingle with fans. You’re not going to see the pros do that. They always had a class act group of kids, and if they weren’t a class act, they’d ship them out.”

Critchlow, the Maineiacs’ final captain, was taken in the dispersal draft by Victoriaville, but he is expected to be traded to Halifax because of his leadership skills.

Bill Keefe can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.