September 16, 2013

Behind civic center dispute, two tenacious personalities

Pirates managing owner Brian Petrovek and civic center board chairman Neal Pratt say they like and respect each other, but their professional relationship has been contentious.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - That Brian Petrovek and Neal Pratt would end up on opposite sides of a courtroom probably comes as a surprise to no one.

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Brian Petrovek

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Neal Pratt

The two have known each other for years. Petrovek came to Maine as one of the new owners of the Portland Pirates hockey team in 2000, and Pratt joined the board of the Cumberland County Civic Center, where the Pirates play home games, two years later. Pratt is now chairman of the board.

Their professional relationship has long been contentious, although the two say they like and respect each other personally. Before the latest dispute, the civic center board of trustees and the Pirates last faced off in 2010, when there were public charges of foot-dragging and overreaching in negotiations and threats to pull the team from Portland and move to Albany, N.Y.

But the latest scuffle may represent a high-water mark of brinksmanship, culminating with the two sides in court over a disputed lease agreement that would keep the Pirates at the arena for five more years.

The outcome of the court battle could determine how much longer the Pirates will keep "Portland" as part of the team name.

Petrovek, the fiery, intense managing owner of the American Hockey League team, is suing the civic center trustees to enforce the terms of an April agreement on the basic terms for a five-year lease to play in the newly renovated arena -- a goal of the team since the current owners bought the franchise 13 years ago.

If they cannot reach an agreement on how to split revenues and expenses, Petrovek has indicated the team could leave Portland altogether.

Pratt, a buttoned-down corporate lawyer, scoffs at the lawsuit, suggesting it's ridiculous to expect a court will uphold as valid a lease outline that has not been signed by either party.

Civic center officials would like to keep a team that will play three dozen or more home games a year in the arena, where the $34 million renovation will wrap up in about four months. But they also point out that they might be able to make more money booking concerts, trade shows and touring ice shows on those dates.


Petrovek, 58, admits to being a workaholic who isn't easy to work for. His intense preparation and long hours date back to his hockey-playing days.

He was a standout goalie in prep school and went on to Harvard, where he became an all-American. He was named the most valuable player of the 1977 Beanpot tournament, when the Crimson defeated a Boston University team that would go on to win the national championship the following year.

Petrovek said being a goalie appealed to him because it's the position where the player is essentially the coach on the rink.

"The goalie is the only player on the ice who can play the entire game, and I like the part that you're the hero or the goat, the last line of defense and the player who can quarterback the game," he said.

He was good enough to be drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, an NHL team, but was disappointed when he was assigned to the AHL affiliate after training camp.

"My expectations were a little different, so I figured I would take advantage of my prep school education and my Harvard education" and move into the business side of the sport, he said.

After earning a master's in education at Harvard while also serving as an assistant coach on the team, Petrovek became the assistant commissioner of the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference. He then worked for a Boston marketing firm while also running a summer hockey camp in the Berkshires. The NHL's New Jersey Devils then hired him, first to run their AHL affiliate in Utica, N.Y., and then to become vice president of marketing for the parent team.

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