The first reaction, no doubt shared by many fans of the Portland Pirates, was sadness.

The next may have been wonder. As in, what next? Does professional hockey have a future in Portland?

For next winter, probably not. Beyond that, the possibility appears strong.

News of an agreement to buy and move the minor-league hockey franchise from Maine to Springfield, Massachusetts, spread quickly Wednesday afternoon. The same sort of thing happened last spring, albeit not nearly as suddenly, in four other Eastern cities that hosted American Hockey League teams.

“I obviously spent a lot of valuable and memorable years in Portland,” said Brian Petrovek, the former CEO of the Pirates who ran the franchise for 14 years before taking over in Glens Falls, New York, in 2014. “I always loved it and always will. I felt sad for the fans, the downtown businesses, everybody who was part of something that was very exciting.”

Petrovek became president of the AHL Adirondack Flames only to see that franchise move to California last spring along with teams in Manchester, Worcester and Norfolk, Virginia. In all but Worcester, the move was made possible because the NHL parent club owned both its AHL and lower-tier ECHL affiliates, and simply swapped them to have their higher-tier farm club closer to home in a newly created Pacific Division of the AHL.

Worcester, formerly home to the San Jose-affiliated Sharks, was without pro hockey this winter and will be again next winter. The ECHL approved an expansion franchise for the 2017-18 season, however, called the Worcester Railers.

Petrovek is now president of the Adirondack Thunder, now playing in the second round of the ECHL playoffs against the South Carolina Stingrays. He said fans in Glens Falls, like those in Manchester and Norfolk, are warming to the ECHL after some initial reluctance.

“Maybe it’s time for that league to plant some roots (in Portland),” Petrovek said. “Maybe this could be in everybody’s best interest. I hope some people get their thinking caps on and think creatively, and keep hockey there.”

ROOM IN THE ECHL

Formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League until accepting teams from the West Coast Hockey League in 2003, the ECHL has 28 franchises spread from Florida to Alaska and New Hampshire to Colorado. Worcester will be the 29th franchise.

“Our goal is ultimately to get to 30 teams,” said Joe Babik, the ECHL director of communications, from league headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. “There is space for one more membership at this time.”

Babik said requirements for a franchise are an ownership group, an arena lease and a business plan. After a background check, the ECHL board of governors would vote on any application.

All but three current ECHL teams – Alaska, Colorado and Wichita – are affiliated with an NHL franchise, which typically supplies between six and 10 players. The rest of the roster plays under a standard ECHL contract. Each team is restricted by a salary cap, and also takes care of housing, travel and equipment costs.

“I think the ECHL is a great model,” said Toby O’Brien, who left the Buffalo Sabres’ organization in order to become president and general manager of the Worcester franchise, “especially in situations where the American League has made a decision to vacate.”

O’Brien knows Portland well. He has a cottage in Acton. His son attends USM and interned with the Pirates. Scott Allen, the coach of the Pirates, is one of his best friends.

“You can’t jump back into anything,” O’Brien said. “You need to see what was broken, see what was right, let everybody cool a bit. We’re a year and a half out because we want to lay a strong financial foundation. We don’t want to be gasping for air in two years.”

FUTURE POSSIBILITIES

Matt Welch, president of the Manchester Monarchs, has been with the New Hampshire franchise for 15 years. Going from an AHL team that hoisted the Calder Cup last spring to an ECHL franchise this season was not without hiccups.

“It was an adjustment for our fans and our market,” Welch said. “People were sad to see the AHL go. But what we found is that hockey-family feel you have at the arena, that community feel, it ended up transferring over to the ECHL. It was more about the people in the seats than the people on the ice.”

Average attendance for the Monarchs dropped from 5,621 as an AHL franchise to 4,622 in their first ECHL season.

In Adirondack, Petrovek saw a similar drop from 3,642 for the Flames to 2,462 with the Thunder. He said keeping ticket prices at the same level turned out to be a mistake.

“We learned a lesson,” he said. “For this upcoming season, we’ve dramatically overhauled pricing.”

Petrovek said he’s already spoken with a few people interested in putting a team in Portland and is happy to help behind the scenes, but that he would not be part of any group. He also said the ECHL schedule for next season is already in place so the 2017-18 season is “where everybody should be looking.”

The NHL is expected to announce a decision before the June draft on possible expansion to Las Vegas and Quebec City. That could open up franchise possibilities in both the ECHL and AHL. Currently all 30 NHL teams have AHL affiliation agreements through next season. About the only scenario under which Portland would host an AHL team next season – assuming the sale goes through – would be a lame-duck year with the Coyotes should the Tucson Convention Center not be ready for hockey this fall.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – which played eight years in Lewiston – isn’t a likely option, according to a league official.

“We are happy with where our 18 teams are located and are not looking at relocating them,” said Photi Sotiropoulos, the director of communications for the QMJHL, in an email.

AN OPENING FOR COLLEGES

Jack McDonald, the athletic director at the University of New England in Biddeford, said the Pirates’ departure could open up dates at Cross Insurance Arena for college basketball and hockey teams.

“Particularly the local Division III schools,” he said. “And it would provide opportunities for the student-athletes, and students and parents to spend the day in Portland.”

McDonald said he already “had preliminary discussions” with arena officials about playing hockey games there. He has been working with Bowdoin, Colby and the University of Southern Maine to form a Beanpot-type hockey tournament that could be played in Portland.

McDonald said the Pirates’ absence opens up possibilities to more tournaments like that, or to more high school games.

“I think it can be a combination of the two,” he said. “I don’t think you can replace the tradition of the Pirates but you can give a whole lot of people a fun experience.”

Former Pirates players continued to react Thursday with disappointment at news of the team leaving for Springfield.

“I’ve been thinking about it all day,” said Andrew Brunette. “It’s sad and terrible.”

“I’m shocked and disappointed for the town,” said Kent Hulst.

Both hope that professional hockey will return in some form.

“It would have to be the right people to come in, the right team and an organization that realizes it’s a small community that loves its hockey team and supports it,” Hulst said.

Brunette, now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Wild, said that he had more fun playing in Portland than in any other city.

“I’m not sure what the options are there,” he said, “but I hope the Pirates name stays in Portland for the next franchise that is lucky enough to move in there.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe contributed to this report.