LEWISTON — For the second time in three seasons, and only the sixth time in the 21-year history of the franchise, the Portland Pirates failed to qualify for the American Hockey League playoffs.
Not that anybody was surprised.
Consider the backdrop for this season:
• Renovations forced the team from the Cumberland County Civic Center.
• Broken-down lease negotiations led to abandoning Portland entirely.
• Team officials opted to relocate in Lewiston.
• Attendance plummeted to the lowest in the league.
• Goalies coach Mike Minard was fired and subsequently arrested for allegedly soliciting sex from a 13-year-old.
Add it all up, and no wonder the Pirates are one step out of the AHL basement, having won only 10 games in 34 home dates at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.
“That doesn’t feel good,” said Coach Ray Edwards of the team’s recent elimination from the playoff race. “We’re proud people. We’d like to win more games. It just hasn’t happened.”
A significant part of the job, Edwards said, is player development. Eleven players who suited up for the Pirates this winter also spent time in the National Hockey League: Andy Miele, Lucas Lessio, Chris Brown, Brandon Gormley, Brandon Yip, Brandon McMillan, Jordan Szwarz, Tim Kennedy, Connor Murphy, Chris Summers and Mark Visentin.
“I know it’s hard for everyone here,” Edwards said. “Believe me, we’re embarrassed by our record. We’re embarrassed by our home record. We want to win more. But if those guys can go up and play well for (the parent Phoenix Coyotes) and (we) give them an opportunity to succeed up there, then part of our job is getting done.
“The rest of it is we’ve got to win more games. And that falls on me, simply.”
Winning back the more than 2,000 extra fans per game who showed up in Portland but declined the trip to Lewiston will be a major challenge heading into next season, the first of a five-year lease extension between the team and Civic Center.
“I don’t know if ‘win back’ is the right word,” said Brad Church, the former Pirate hired in late February as chief operating officer, a role that includes community relations. “We’re not looking in the rearview mirror. We’re very excited about the Civic Center. We’re excited about getting back to downtown Portland. We’re exciting about re-engaging with the community.”
Only time will tell whether the community is excited about re-engaging with the Pirates, but early indications appear promising. Bill Fyler of Kezar Falls had been a season-ticket holder for the four years prior to this one. He has yet to make the 90-minute drive to Lewiston for a game.
“I’m not done with them,” he said. “I was a little bit disappointed that they went to Lewiston and offered cheaper tickets to the Lewiston fans than I was paying in Portland. That felt like a slap in the face.”
Even so, Fyler recently made a two-year commitment to four season tickets. His wife Susan and their children, Dylan, 16, and B.J., 12, also enjoy watching hockey.
“My family and I love the players,” he said. “I don’t especially love the management. I think that was a great change with the (majority) owner (Ron Cain) putting Brad Church as the face of management instead of Brian (Petrovek). That’s going to be a big help.”
Petrovek, whose new role with the team is president of business development, was the team’s lead negotiator during the often contentious talks with trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Fyler also believes the team will be more receptive to input from season-ticket holders, something that was promised in the past, he said, but not delivered.
“I’m optimistic,” said Fyler, who was invited to the renovated Civic Center to see his new seats when he phoned to buy tickets.
“Communication is the biggest thing. I’m a nurse at (Maine Medical Center) and even when things aren’t good news, you still want to know. I think sometimes there were more rumors than information, and rumors (stink). … The constant threat of the Pirates leaving, it got to be old.”
The move to Lewiston failed to deter Andrew Hart of South Portland, a season-ticket holder since 2005. Hart has attended all 34 games in Lewiston and, for the fourth winter in a row, organized a fan bus to an away game.
“The way a lot of us looked at it, it’s better going to Lewiston than another place that isn’t even in Maine,” he said. “We’re just trying to make the best of the situation.”
Hart was part of an on-ice promotional contest last week along with another season-ticket holder, Scott Prue of Biddeford. Prue and his wife, Stephanie, are in their fifth year of season tickets. Their son Westin, 2, attends the games as well.
“Every year has its moments,” said Prue, 25. “Even though they didn’t make the playoffs, I’m pretty satisfied.”
Nancy Moyer, a freelance copy editor from Lewiston, started going to Pirates games last fall and already has purchased tickets for next winter. She went on the fan bus to Hartford and came to appreciate the community of longtime Pirates supporters.
“It would be lovely and wonderful if they were winning,” she said. “But the guys are out there trying. I’m a bit disappointed (in the turnout) but there’s a core of people who do show up. … We still make a fair amount of noise.”
Neither Edwards nor his players ever used the change of venues as an excuse, even though most players live for the season near the team’s practice facility in Saco. That the team has won more on the road than at the Colisee testifies to the absence of a home-ice advantage in Lewiston.
“Logistically, it’s been a challenge for everybody,” said Church, a member of the Pirates Hall of Fame who played parts of six seasons with them between 1996 and 2002. “But in saying that, we thank the Lewiston community for welcoming us and supporting us. As hard as it’s been, there have been some nights where the guys have really enjoyed being up here. So we thank everybody for that.”
Four home dates remain, and already the season’s final weekend of games is being pushed forward to accommodate the Kora Shrine Circus. The modified Pirates schedule called for an Easter Sunday finale on April 20. On Friday that game with Manchester was moved 11 days earlier, to Wednesday night.
The apparent implication: This season can’t end soon enough.
“It may take some time to wash away the bad taste in people’s mouths from this season,” said Hart, the diehard from South Portland. “I think it’ll be a much better team, a much better product, a much better everything going into next year.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or: