November 16, 2013

From NEHJ: Pirates tread uncharted waters

By Mike Miccoli

The AHL’s Portland Pirates, below right, are playing in the Androscoggin Bank Colisee (above, cap. 3,737) this season. (Photos/Ron Morin/Portland Pirates (action); Michael McSweeney (arena)

Relocation is hardly a rare occurrence in the American Hockey League, with organizations regularly shifting affiliates from one stop to the next. However, it’s not often you see a professional sports team up and move just days before the regular season is about to begin. That’s exactly what happened in Portland, Maine.

While it wasn’t to a new state or new fan base, the Pirates announced that all of their home games for the 2013-14 AHL season would be played at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston-Auburn instead of the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, their home barn for the past 20 years. The move came after a heated legal battle over a lease dispute between Neal Pratt, chairman of the Civic Center Board of Trustees, and Ron Cain and Brian Petrovek, the Pirates’ owner and managing owner.

“Pirates fans should be outraged,” said Petrovek. “We consider ourselves fortunate that we can now provide them with a venue to see the team play just up the road, and for that, we are grateful and determined to make this a success.”

With their previous lease expiring at the conclusion of the 2012-13 AHL season, the Pirates were unable to secure a new agreement to remain in the Cumberland County Civic Center going forward. Petrovek has said that a deal was made in April with the Board of Trustees, which was later disputed by Pratt and the Board of Trustees.

The move wasn’t exactly out of the blue for fans, however. The Pirates were slated to play their first 13 home games at the Colisee while upgrades were made to the Civic Center. Still, the Pirates’ new home is approximately 40 miles north of their former one. Worse, the Colisee holds just 3,737 fans, which is nearly half of the Civic Center’s 6,700 capacity. The team averaged a little over 4,400 fans per game in 2012-13.

“It’s nuts that they moved to Lewiston,” said Wendell Carr, a longtime Pirates fan. “I was a big fan (when they played in Portland).”

While the Pirates recorded an official attendance of 2,102 in their true home opener on Oct. 9 at the Colisee against the Manchester Monarchs, the following Saturday’s game against the Providence Bruins marked the first sellout of the season.

Carr later explained that, while he will still attend games in Lewiston, he won’t be going as frequently as he did when the team was in Portland. He surely won’t be alone, as Portland residents now face a 40-mile trek to-and-from Lewiston-Auburn to see the Pirates play. Petrovek knew that the move wouldn’t be approved by all fans.

“We’ve heard from some, and the reactions have been somewhat predictable in terms of, ‘We’re with you, we’re willing to take on more of a commitment to come up here,’ “ Petrovek said at the press conference announcing the move on Sept. 26. “Others have taken a different approach, and we expected that. It’s something we’re going to deal with, and we hope over time we’ll change their tune.”

Travel concerns aren’t limited to just spectators.

“The whole thing in Lewiston, we’re going to try to treat it like we would if we were in Portland,” Pirates coach Ray Edwards told the Sun Journal. “There will be some games we bus to, the games where we have road games right afterward that we have to leave for, or anytime we see weather approaching, we’ll probably get a bus for the guys so they’re not driving in the weather, and we may have to stay overnight in a hotel if the weather is poor or if there’s an afternoon game the next day. But for the other games, we’re going to let the guys drive up there, we’re going to let them treat it like a normal home game and we’ll see how that goes. It’s a little trial and error for us.”

In their first four games of the season, the Pirates were held without a win, with their only point coming in a shootout loss in the home opener against the Monarchs.

While those around Portland might be scratching their heads over the loss of their professional hockey team, the acquisition makes for some interesting, new opportunities for those in the Lewiston-Auburn area. One of the more vocal proponents of the move is Lewiston Mayor Robert E. Macdonald, who called the day that the Pirates announced their new arena as the “happiest day” of his mayoral term in an op-ed in the Twin City Times.

“The relocation of the Portland Pirates hockey team to Lewiston presents us with an enormous opportunity to showcase our area,” Macdonald wrote. “This gift of good fortune, which has fallen into our laps, gives us a means upon which to build our area and its economy. Our cities now have a highly skilled, professional hockey team.”

Macdonald wrote about the Pirates’ arrival, encouraging local businesses, including restaurants and shops, to feature specials and discounts on products, goods and services to entice fans to support the town in an attempt to boost the economy. It’s one tactic that will benefit the twin cities, but how many fans will buy into that, especially given the sudden nature of the maneuver?

“They won’t make the money in Lewiston,” said Carr. “I don’t think they’ll be in the state of Maine next year.”

For now, the Pirates have an opportunity to make an impact on the community and bring hockey to a new area. While Portland might feel the repercussions of the team leaving, it presents an intriguing opportunity for Lewiston-Auburn and the idea of the new fans that the team could gain.

“We’ll let the fans of this region determine how we should best proceed for the future,” said Petrovek. “We need this community’s support but we intend to earn it. We consider this a once in a generation opportunity for (Lewiston-Auburn), Androscoggin County and outlying areas to take hold of an American Hockey League team and call it its own, but we intend to give you lots of reasons why.”

In the meantime, as this rare situation gets resolved behind the scenes, the Pirates must remain focused on their on-ice product, regardless of whether they’re at the friendly confines of the Civic Center or playing on a new stage in front of a smaller crowd.

“When it comes down to it, all the rinks are the same size, and when the puck drops, it’s go time,” Pirates blueliner Brandon Gormley said. “It doesn’t make much a difference to us. We’re excited to have the fan support in a smaller rink. We’re looking forward to it.”

Twitter: @MikeMiccoli