Twenty-three seasons of Portland Pirates hockey officially came to an end on Monday.
The American Hockey League’s Board of Governors unanimously approved the sale of the minor-league team to a group of local investors in Springfield, Massachusetts. The governors also approved the move of the franchise to Springfield, where it will begin play at the MassMutual Center this fall.
The AHL team’s nickname will be announced in coming weeks.
“This is a great day for our organization, for the city of Springfield and for the entire region,” said Frank Fitzgerald, attorney for the new owners, Springfield Hockey, LLC.
The NHL’s Florida Panthers, who were partnered with the Pirates during the 2015-16 season, have signed a multiyear affiliation agreement with Springfield Hockey, LLC. The Panthers announced that Eric Joyce will remain their AHL general manager. Joyce was GM of the Pirates last season.
“I think it’s actually a blessing in disguise,” said George Nanos of Portland, who has been a fan of AHL hockey since attending his first Maine Mariners game in 1977, when he was 14. “The American Hockey League is indifferent to us and they kind of let it slide.”
The Pirates announced on May 4 that majority owner Ron Cain had struck a deal to sell the franchise to a group planning to move the team out of Portland. The news stunned city officials and left Cumberland County without a major tenant at Cross Insurance Arena.
Last week, two men with historical connections to the Pirates – former team president W. Godfrey Wood and former player Brad Church – announced they are building a team of investors to bring an ECHL team to Portland, with hopes of fielding a team by the fall of 2017. The ECHL is considered the third tier of professional hockey in North America, after the NHL and AHL.
“They know what it is to be involved in the community,” Nanos said of Wood and Church. “I’m hoping that (the ECHL expansion franchise) will be approved. It’s a chance to generate community interest again.”
Church said Monday he has been in talks with the CIA board of trustees regarding a lease to accompany an ECHL expansion application, which he plans to submit in early June. He said he has also been talking with investors.
“I feel good about the pace and the positive direction,” said Church, who served the past two years as chief operating officer of the Pirates. “Everything seems to be moving along just fine.”
The Pirates played in downtown Portland from 1993 through this spring, winning the AHL’s Calder Cup championship in their first season. The team struggled with attendance the past two seasons, finishing last among the AHL’s 30 teams in 2014-15 and 29th last winter.