September 28, 2013

In Pirates' breakaway, both sides move on

Now that the hockey team is calling Lewiston 'home,' civic center and Portland official don't expect to 'see (them) coming back.'

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Community leaders and trustees of the Cumberland County Civic Center said Friday that they believe the Portland Pirates have played their last hockey game in the city.

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A welder works on the exterior of the Cumberland County Civic Center on Friday. The Portland Pirates’ departure leaves the civic center without an anchor tenant.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Portland Pirates CEO Brian Petrovek said Friday he doesn’t know whether his team will ever come back to Portland, where it played for 20 years.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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"We have not talked about moving on as a board, but my sense is that it has likely already happened," said Gary Plummer, one of nine trustees on the civic center's board. "I don't see the Pirates coming back."

Godfrey Wood, who co-owned the team in the mid-1990s, added, "It would seem that bridge has been burned."

The American Hockey League team said Thursday that it will play its 2013-14 home games in Lewiston. The announcement capped months of acrimonious lease negotiations between the trustees and Pirates owner Brian Petrovek over distribution of revenue from the team's home games.

Petrovek said Thursday that Lewiston is now "home" for the Pirates. He said Friday that he doesn't know whether his team will ever come back to the city where it played for 20 years.

Also Friday, the Pirates withdrew their request for a preliminary court injunction to force the civic center to allow them to play 25 games in Portland this season, after the ongoing $34 million renovation of the arena is complete.

Even before Thursday's announcement, the Pirates were scheduled to play home games in Lewiston until January, because of the renovation.

The team's lawsuit seeking to force the civic center to abide by the outline of a lease deal that was announced in April remains active, but its decision not to seek the injunction makes it likely that the lawsuit won't go to trial for months.

The Pirates' move leaves the civic center without an anchor tenant.

In the short term, the civic center's trustees and staff will work to fill the 25 dates over the next six months that are now vacant because of the move.

Those dates could be filled by other events, such as concerts, but there is no guarantee, particularly with the renovation continuing.

"I'm not sure 'confident' is the right word," Plummer said, "but I think people are optimistic that we can fill enough dates to keep it viable."

The civic center could eventually host another hockey team, or survive without one.

"I think the civic center would be fine without an anchor tenant," said Bill Diamond, a former trustee. "But there might be other interested hockey teams out there."

Hockey has not been a big moneymaker for the civic center in recent years, but it guaranteed that the arena was at least partially filled 38 days a year, and more when the Pirates reached the playoffs.

That has been a boon to the business community, particularly restaurants and hotels near the civic center.

"The biggest thing we can do is pull together as a community to make sure we're economically whole," said Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber.

Right now, Petrovek has exclusive rights to operate an AHL franchise in Portland. Under the league's rules, no other AHL team can come in unless Petrovek sells or moves the team at least 50 miles from Portland.

Lewiston is about 35 miles from Portland.

With the Pirates in Lewiston, the civic center could seek a hockey tenant from a league below the AHL, which is hockey's top minor league.

The ECHL, formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, is a minor league based in New Jersey. Twenty-five of its 30 teams have affiliations with teams in the National Hockey League.

There also are junior hockey leagues, in the U.S. and Canada. Lewiston had a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team -- the Maineiacs -- for eight years before the team folded in 2011 after losing money for years.

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