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 emurphy@pressherald.com
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: EX-GOALIE, DETERMINED

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.

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: RENOVATION LEADER, COACH

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.

His proudest moment, the one he calls his personal definition of success, came at the New England regional tournament, where the winning team goes on to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. He watched his team rally around the pitcher, who had just walked in the winning run, costing the team a trip to Pennsylvania.

"We may not have had the most talented players, but in terms of playing together as a team, I don't think there was anybody better," he said.

BOTH THINK ABOUT MOVING ON

It's not clear what will happen to either man after the court battle is eventually resolved. Both Pratt and Petrovek hinted they each may soon be ready to move on from the civic center and Pirates, respectively.

Pratt said his current term ends in December, weeks before the civic center is scheduled to reopen.

There would be a certain symmetry, he said, to stepping down when the job that confronted him when he first joined the board wraps up.

Pratt said he's devoted to making sure the civic center is used to its fullest and makes enough money to pay off the bond that voters passed.

"I was raised that if you commit to something, you commit to it 100 percent," he said.

Petrovek said his goal is to create a sustainable team that will turn a profit, which it is forecast to do in 2014-15 -- assuming the team is still playing in the civic center.

"I came here to get something done," he said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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