PORTLAND – Community leaders and trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center said Friday that they believe the Portland Pirates have played their last hockey game in the city.
“We have not talked about moving on as a board, but my sense is that it has likely already happened,” said Gary Plummer, one of nine trustees on the civic center’s board. “I don’t see the Pirates coming back.”
Godfrey Wood, who co-owned the team in the mid-1990s, added, “It would seem that bridge has been burned.”
The American Hockey League team said Thursday that it will play its 2013-14 home games in Lewiston. The announcement capped months of acrimonious lease negotiations between the trustees and Pirates owner Brian Petrovek over distribution of revenue from the team’s home games.
Petrovek said Thursday that Lewiston is now “home” for the Pirates. He said Friday that he doesn’t know whether his team will ever come back to the city where it played for 20 years.
Also Friday, the Pirates withdrew their request for a preliminary court injunction to force the civic center to allow them to play 25 games in Portland this season, after the ongoing $34 million renovation of the arena is complete.
Even before Thursday’s announcement, the Pirates were scheduled to play home games in Lewiston until January, because of the renovation.
The team’s lawsuit seeking to force the civic center to abide by the outline of a lease deal that was announced in April remains active, but its decision not to seek the injunction makes it likely that the lawsuit won’t go to trial for months.
The Pirates’ move leaves the civic center without an anchor tenant.
In the short term, the civic center’s trustees and staff will work to fill the 25 dates over the next six months that are now vacant because of the move.
Those dates could be filled by other events, such as concerts, but there is no guarantee, particularly with the renovation continuing.
“I’m not sure ‘confident’ is the right word,” Plummer said, “but I think people are optimistic that we can fill enough dates to keep it viable.”
The civic center could eventually host another hockey team, or survive without one.
“I think the civic center would be fine without an anchor tenant,” said Bill Diamond, a former trustee. “But there might be other interested hockey teams out there.”
Hockey has not been a big moneymaker for the civic center in recent years, but it guaranteed that the arena was at least partially filled 38 days a year, and more when the Pirates reached the playoffs.
That has been a boon to the business community, particularly restaurants and hotels near the civic center.
“The biggest thing we can do is pull together as a community to make sure we’re economically whole,” said Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber.
Right now, Petrovek has exclusive rights to operate an AHL franchise in Portland. Under the league’s rules, no other AHL team can come in unless Petrovek sells or moves the team at least 50 miles from Portland.
Lewiston is about 35 miles from Portland.
With the Pirates in Lewiston, the civic center could seek a hockey tenant from a league below the AHL, which is hockey’s top minor league.
The ECHL, formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, is a minor league based in New Jersey. Twenty-five of its 30 teams have affiliations with teams in the National Hockey League.
There also are junior hockey leagues, in the U.S. and Canada. Lewiston had a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team — the Maineiacs — for eight years before the team folded in 2011 after losing money for years.
“I think there could be some viability in bringing another hockey team here. It’s a terrific market,” said Wood, the former Pirates co-owner.
Plummer, the trustee, said he’s not sure that this is the best time to attract another hockey tenant but the civic center must at least keep that option open.
Since the Cumberland County Civic Center opened in 1977, it has been home to a minor league hockey team for every year but one.
For the first 15 years, it hosted the Maine Mariners, who were affiliated with the Philadelphia Flyers, then the New Jersey Devils and finally the Boston Bruins. The Mariners moved to Providence in 1992 and became the Providence Bruins. That team still exists.
After one year without a team, the civic center brought in the Pirates.
Diamond, who was on the board of trustees at the time, said no one had any doubt that another hockey team would come. This time, he’s less sure but still optimistic.
Plummer, who was a Cumberland County commissioner during that bridge year in the early ’90s, said there was nervousness in the community when the Mariners left.
“We all thought, ‘What are we going to do to make up that revenue?’ But as it turns out, we did just fine,” he said.
Most of the dates left vacant in 1992-93 were filled by concerts and other events. Plummer acknowledged that it might be harder to bring concerts to Portland today than it was 20 years ago.
The civic center hosted 46 concerts in its first full year, but over the years it has lost concert dates because of its relatively small size. More modern facilities in other areas have created competition for the civic center.
In 2005, the civic center booked 20 concerts. By 2009, the number dropped to 11. And in 2012, there were only four.
With just over 6,700 fixed seats, the civic center is the state’s largest arena.
The Cross Insurance Center, which opened this year in Bangor, has 5,800 fixed seats and a capacity of more than 8,000 for concerts. The Cross Insurance Center, which cost Bangor about $65 million, does not have an anchor tenant but its construction was paid for with revenue from the nearby Hollywood Casino.
The civic center’s renovation was undertaken largely to make the venue more amenable to its anchor tenant and to hockey fans.
An economic analysis done in 2010, the year before the referendum in which voters approved the renovation, concluded that the civic center had to “fundamentally protect the current event schedule and optimally expand the event schedule.”
It also advised the civic center to create new revenue streams.
In July, the civic center hired Front Row Marketing Services, a division of Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., to market the naming rights, corporate sponsorships and premium seating for the renovated arena.
Front Row was the sales arm of the Pirates and also represents the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor — it helped secure naming rights for that facility for $3 million.
It’s unclear whether the Pirates’ move will affect Front Row’s ability to market the civic center. A representative from Front Row did not return calls for comment Friday.
Diamond said he has already heard from many people who think the civic center was treated badly by Pirates’ owners.
“They said the renovations were needed or they would leave,” Diamond said. “So we make renovations and they left anyway.”
As the civic center looks to bring in other revenue to stem any losses, there could be ways to cut expenses.
Plummer said he plans to float the idea of not maintaining the ice for the foreseeable future, which would save cooling costs.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: