LEWISTON – When the Maine Hockey Group — 40-percent stakeholders in the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League and owners of the Saco-based Junior Pirates — gobbled up most of the available ice time in Maine’s version of hockeytown, some viewed it as a hostile takeover.

With MHG’s purchase in March of about 1,200 hours to start running its programs this summer at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, Lewiston’s existing youth hockey organization will no longer be able to use the Colisee, its home for nearly 50 years.

To the volunteers who run the Lewiston Area Youth Hockey League, the deal between the Colisee and MHG was a step designed to put them out of business.

To Colisee owner Firland Management, the loss of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Lewiston Maineiacs last year and diminished ice time purchases over the past few years made MHG’s offer an attractive option when few others were available. It also opened the door for potential growth, with talk of bringing to town a team from the United States Hockey League, the nation’s highest-rated junior league.

To the owners of the Portland Junior Pirates, expansion of operations into Maine’s hockey hotbed was a sound business move. Ron Cain, MHG’s majority owner, wasn’t surprised about the initial hostile reaction to the expansion of the Junior Pirates’ programs into Lewiston, yet he is ready to move forward.

“I do understand the emotion up there,” Cain said. “But at the end of the day we’re just putting a product out there. If people want to come, they can come. Really, the heart of what we’re doing is for the kids, and we don’t lose sight of that.”

YOUTH LEAGUE FALLOUT

When the announcement of the Junior Pirates’ move into Lewiston was made, officials of the local youth organization said they had been given little warning such a move was imminent.

“I was briefed about it the day before the press conference,” said Andy Guerin, LAYHL president.

But Jim Cain, president of Firland Management and no relation to Ron Cain, claims he’s been telling LAYHL officials almost from the time his company purchased the building four years ago from the City of Lewiston for $1 million that changes had to be made in order for his firm to continue to operate the building.

It didn’t take long for the LAYHL to react. A week after being told it would no longer be able to rent ice at the Colisee, the all-volunteer group announced it was merging with the Auburn Youth League.

“We’re going to team up with Auburn, and we’re going to get ice from other venues,” Guerin said.

The new youth hockey association, which could be the largest in Maine with a combined registration of more than 500 boys and girls, intends to operate its programs at Ingersoll Arena in Auburn, as well as arenas at Hebron Academy, Bates College, Kents Hill School and Bowdoin College. They also hope to use the Bank of Maine Ice Vault, which is under construction on the site of the old Kennebec Ice Arena in Hallowell.

“We’re going to do more of the (American Development Model) that USA Hockey recommends us doing anyway, which is putting more than two teams on the ice at a time to work on individual skills,” Guerin said.

The merger could help beef up segments of the youth program in the Twin Cities, especially for girls.

“Now, we will be able put two full girls teams out on the ice in just about every age group,” said Denis Berube, president of the Auburn league. “One will be for girls who want to play a highly competitive schedule and the other team will be for girls who don’t want to do that.”

Berube said the merged leagues now have an incentive to be more efficient in their operation.

“Before, we didn’t have the motivation to do things a certain way because we didn’t have to,” he said. “Now, we have a reason to change the way we operate.”

In the past, Berube said Auburn Youth League teams didn’t start practice before 9 a.m., and none practiced after 8:30 p.m. Under the new arrangement, practices for some teams now may start a little earlier or run a little later.

THE PROBLEM

This past season, the LAYHL and the Maine Gladiators — an offshoot program that offers more advanced development for nearly 100 players who live within a 30-mile radius of Lewiston — combined to rent nearly 900 hours of ice time at the Colisee.

But according to Jim Cain, that was not enough for the arena to remain financially solvent.

“In an effort to make the place economically viable, at some point I have to have consistency in the programming,” he said. “When you have ice, it doesn’t go away overnight. It just can’t sit there. You have to use it.”

According to Jim Cain, putting the 3,675-seat Colisee on a firmer financial footing is essential in finding a primary tenant to replace the Lewiston Maineiacs, who spent eight years at the facility before ceasing operations.

Jim Cain said his company joined with MHG in an effort to lure a team from the USHL into the building.

“The Colisee was in a situation where they were running at a deficit,” said Ron Cain. “(Jim Cain) needed it for the long-term viability of the building, and we needed it as an opportunity to expand our brand. Our objective here is, and always has been, to bring as high a level of hockey to Maine as we can and develop the kids in Maine to the highest level they want to achieve.”

USHL EXPANSION?

The Junior Pirates will start running youth programs this summer at the Colisee, and the Portland Pirates will play as many six games in the building next season. But it may take some time for the USHL to decide to locate one of its teams there.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Skip Prince, USHL commissioner.

Currently, the entire 16-team league is located in the Midwest. The Youngstown (Ohio) Phantoms are the closest USHL team to Maine. Prince said he’s spoken with potential ownership groups in Pennsylvania and New York, Massachusetts and Virginia, as well as in Maine, to investigate the viability of expanding eastward.

“I’d say we’re still in the first stages of that analysis,” he said.

In order to make it work, a new division of four to six teams would have to be created, Prince said. But the USHL, which develops players ages 16 to 20 primarily for Division I colleges, is approaching expansion cautiously.

“The worst thing in the world is to dilute the quality of the current player base by trying to put forward six teams at once,” said Prince. “This would have to be a kind of gradual-growth proposition.”

LEWISTON’S ATTRIBUTES

Prince likes what he’s seen in Lewiston.

“Lewiston has some attributes. It sounds like the group there is willing to put some money into the building. It’s a good group there, very professional,” said Prince, who added it costs between $1.2 and $1.5 million a year to operate an USHL team. “It generally takes a building of 3,500 to 4,000 seats, and you need to average 2,200 people per game,” he said.

Prince said there are five keys to success for a USHL team.

“First of all, you’ve got to have the players, and we think we can get to that,” he said. “You’ve got to have a good building, and you’ve got to have a business relationship inside that building that makes sense. You’ve got to have sponsors and a community that can sustain a team. You really have to have a fan base.”

Another key to success is stability.

“These young (players) and their families have to know it’s a stable environment that they’re in,” Prince said.

“They have to know the team is not going be to moving, and the kids have to feel comfortable.”

CO-EXISTING PROGRAMS

Brian Petrovek, CEO and managing partner of the Portland Pirates, said there is room for both the Junior Pirates and the LAYHL because they embrace different models for player development.

“It provides families and kids with choice,” he said. “No program is for everybody. For those who choose the program that we offer, that is great. We think they’re going to get their money’s worth. But if our program doesn’t suit your objectives, your needs or your lifestyle, then do something else and hopefully it’s going to work for you.” 

Staff Writer Paul Betit can be contacted at 791-6424 or at:

pbetit@pressherald.com

Twitter: PaulBetitPPH