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

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Brian Petrovek

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Neal Pratt

After that, he helped head USA Hockey -- which oversees the national team that plays in the Olympics -- until Lyman Bullard, a teammate from Harvard who went on to became one of the nation's top sports lawyers, asked Petrovek to help him buy a hockey franchise -- the Portland Pirates.

Although Petrovek's career seems like an unbroken string of successes, he has had public setbacks. Last December, he was arrested and charged with operating under the influence in downtown Portland after a game. He pleaded guilty and said publicly that the arrest marked a "turning point" for him.

Bullard said he has always been impressed by Petrovek's determination to do what was necessary to get the job done, a trait that was legendary back in his playing days.

"He was, in high school and in college, the most meticulously prepared athlete I've ever known. He would study opponents, study shooters, study tendencies and take notes," Bullard said. "He was just an unbelievably focused guy. You did not want to talk to him in the locker room before a game."

Petrovek said that's his personality. "It's the way I was as an athlete and I'm that way as an executive," he said. "That oftentimes means working more at it and harder at it. If somebody interprets that as (being) a workaholic, so be it."

He remains that way even among family, said his brother-in-law, Bill Leblond, whose sister, Sara, started dating Petrovek at Harvard. The two were married a few years after graduating.

At family gatherings, Leblond said, Petrovek always seems preoccupied by what he has to do the next day for the Pirates.

"And when I see him at a game, it's clear he's working," Leblond said.

Leblond played against Petrovek at BU and remembers scoring on him at the 1978 Beanpot. The two don't reminisce about their college careers like others might expect, Leblond said, but an attitude that others might see as aloof he attributes to shyness.


Pratt, by contrast, has a lawyer's knack for talking and relating to people.

Pratt's game was baseball, and he said he considered himself a good player while growing up in Bangor. But when he got to the University of Maine, the team was flying high and stocked with talented players, including a few who went on to major league careers.

"For some reason, the coach thought that Billy Swift and others should play ahead of me," joked Pratt, who was relegated to the practice team.

Pratt, 51, earned a law degree in New Hampshire and came to Portland to practice after working as a staffer for U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

He ran for Cumberland County district attorney in 1998 and lost, but formed a deep friendship during the campaign with Peter Feeney, his campaign manager, who was a Cumberland County commissioner at the time.

Feeney died at age 25 -- a cause was never determined -- as he was preparing to have Pratt named to the civic center board. Feeney's father, Dick Feeney, was appointed to his son's seat and nominated Pratt for the board seat.

Pratt said he recognized that the arena was in desperate need of a renovation and made that his goal. He devoted years to planning the scope of the work, getting a $34 million bond passed to finance the renovations and seeing the work get under way.

Outside of his legal work and the civic center, his focus was to help his son's Scarborough Little League team. Although the team turned out to be very good -- the same core group played together for three years and won the state title in 2012 -- Pratt said winning wasn't his primary goal.

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