A post-Pirates world: Maine adapts in first season without hockey franchise

Portland Pirates hockey fans have turned to other pursuits since the team left Maine seven months ago.

But now, as professional hockey action picks up speed across the country — but not in Portland — county managers must confront the conundrum of how to make up revenue at the Cross Insurance Arena. The arena, formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center, is where the Pirates played for 23 seasons.

In May, the Portland Pirates, American Hockey League affiliate of the Florida Panthers, shocked residents of Maine by announcing the team was being uprooted from Portland and moved to Springfield, Mass.

The move not only posed an economic problem for Maine, which saw ripple effects from the business related to hockey. Taxpayers are on the hook as well. The Civic Center underwent a $33 million publicly funded renovation, which leaves a debt to repay.

Asked via email last week if the absence of Pirates hockey has had a financial effect, Alex Kimball, finance director for Cumberland County, wrote, "I will say that it is probably way too soon to tell yet, since the season only began a few weeks ago."

Mike Cain, general manager at Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, where the Pirates played for a season during a lease dispute with Cumberland County officials, reported on Monday that the biggest consequence of the Pirates move is the loss of the Junior Pirates program.

"Our business hasn't really changed much, the Junior Pirates moving out of state had more of an impact on us because they closed the Saco rink," Cain reported.

In July, the Portland Press Herald reported, "The rink formerly known as the MHG Ice Centre was removed after the ownership group that leases the space realized it would no longer have two key hockey teams – the AHL Portland Pirates and the Portland Junior Pirates Elite team – to use the facility. … The removal of the ice rink led to the Portland Junior Pirates youth hockey program being dissolved and sent the Scarborough High hockey programs scrambling for a new facility to practice and play."

"We're continuing business as usual, we gained a youth hockey team that's renting ice here," Cain said.

In September, the L/A Fighting Spirit Junior “A” Hockey program started its second season competing in Lewiston. According to its website, http://www.fightingspirithockey.com/recruit-me, "The Fighting Spirit was created to develop and promote amateur Junior A hockey players with the ability and desire to play at the college level."

Back in May, Portland City Councilor Nick Mavodones said his understanding was that attendance had been down “for quite some time” at the Cross Insurance Arena for the Pirates.

According to its schedule, the arena today is hosting University of Maine Black Bears men's hockey (the team hosts Brown University on Nov. 26) and the same non-hockey-related events such as Disney on Ice.

The arena renovation, funded with a $33 million bond approved by voters in November 2011, took its toll.

Lack of a new lease to practice and compete at what was then the Cumberland County Civic Center carried a steep cost for the Portland Pirates, according to then-Pirates Managing Owner and CEO Brian Petrovek, who clashed with Civic Center managers in spring of 2013.
Petrovek, then the president for business development for the Portland Pirates hockey franchise, and previously the company's CEO for the past 14 years, ended up resigning in April 2014. A lawsuit against the Civic Center board was dropped. But officials said Portland Pirates hockey failed to sustain the level of attendance needed to keep the franchise in Maine.

So the Springfield Thunderbirds, newly established 160 miles south, are the new incarnation of the Pirates. Their home opener game for the 2016-2017 season, on Oct. 22, sold out — the capacity crowd of 6,793 was the largest attendance for an AHL hockey game at Springfield’s MassMutual Center in over a decade, team officials announced.

Back in May, Mavodones said, "The Pirates have been a great fixture of the city since the Mariners, I’m hopeful that the trustees and the business community can work to try to bring another team back here.”

For now, rink managers will deal with a post-Pirates world.

Ever adapting, Cain said stability is a hard-to-find commodity, noting, "The hockey world is always forever changing."

Last modified onWednesday, 09 November 2016 14:12