Olaf Kolzig flipped his goalie’s mask in one direction and tossed his goalie’s stick in another. For one second, maybe two, his big smile of pure joy was visible as he skated a stride or two away from the net.
Then he was buried in the swarm of Portland Pirates teammates that night in 1994. The Pirates had beaten the Moncton Hawks to win the Calder Cup in six games.
The players and coaches were living the moment. Twenty years later they can relive their part in a game and a season that turned a tourist gateway into a bona fide sports town.
A hockey team stole Portland’s heart in 1994. Love affairs don’t always last and this one didn’t. But the memories are still sharp.
The score of the final game was 4-1, which drained the drama from the finish but did little to diminish the celebration on the ice or in the stands. The crowd of more than 7,000 was on its feet as the last minute and seconds disappeared off the big scoreboard above the ice.
Days later an estimated 15,000 lined Congress Street for the parade that ended at Portland City Hall. Thunderstorms were in the area and the team was in convertibles but it didn’t matter. The Pirates owned Portland.
Economists try to quantify the value of a sports franchise to a city in dollars and cents. These was cheers and a few joyous tears from fans and those who recognized a bandwagon when it rolled by.
The Maine Mariners won three Calder Cups after they arrived in 1977. When the Mariners beat Dynamo Moscow 1-0 on a third-period goal in an exhibition that year, the cheers were heard in Kittery. That was three years before the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice Olympics in Lake Placid.
The Mariners lost their mojo by the early 1990s and left for Providence, Rhode Island. The Cumberland County Civic Center was dark as the city contemplated life without a pro franchise.
Then Tom and Joyce Ebright arrived with their hockey team for the 1993-94 season and before you can say Barry Trotz, head coach, the Pirates were in the playoffs. Much like the Red Sox of 2013, few saw that coming.
Consider the timing. The Portland Sea Dogs were new and the Maine Red Claws didn’t exist in anyone’s imagination. The Red Sox were 10 years from winning their first World Series since 1918 and the Patriots hadn’t won a Super Bowl.
It’s 1994 and the last NBA title won by the Celtics was in 1986 and the last time the Bruins skated with the Stanley Cup was 1972. The saving grace was the University of Maine’s first national hockey title won a year earlier in Milwaukee.
Ebright, Trotz and the players arrived with no emotional baggage. They had clean slates. This was a honeymoon year of the best kind.
The Ebrights were the last of a vanishing type of minor league owner. When Tom Ebright talked about his investment, you weren’t sure if he meant the business model or the simple love of the team.
His affiliate arrangement with the Washington Capitals gave him the wiggle room and financial responsibility to buy a few free agents to add to the Caps’ prospects. Ebright trusted Trotz’s eye for talent and opened his checkbook. That hasn’t happened for some 15 years.
Ebright was the owner who would don a mascot’s uniform to hear what fans were saying. He was the owner who wore his Pirates sweater. His wife did, too, and they sat in grandstand seats game after game with paying customers.
They didn’t own the Civic Center but made it seem like they were opening their home to the fans who would sit next to them. I never saw Ebright stand in line to buy his own popcorn at the concessions but have no doubt he did.
More than anything else, you bought into the team. Kevin Kaminski was your guy, and Brian Curran and Michel Picard and Ken Klee and Randy Pearce and Jeff Nelson and so many others. You got to know them by more than their names on the backs of sweaters.
Dave Redmond was the Pirates’ trainer that year. The guy who saw everything and said nothing until we met at the victory parade.
“These guys are a group of individuals who cared about everyone else in that room,” Redmond told me that day. “It’s kind of hard to explain and I’ve never seen it before. Not like this.
“I’m probably as happy as I’ve ever been, to see pro athletes like these guys be so happy when they won. … I’ll never forget it.”
Neither should you. Someday there may be another pro team in Portland like the 1994 Pirates. We’re still waiting.