March 17, 2010

Solloway: Building a future for a building

By Steve Solloway

A city retains a small piece of its identity. Hockey fans can cheer again without feeling like something is stuck in their throats.

Somebody blinked and shook hands, and a group of trustees need not count their fingers. The Portland Pirates appear to be staying put for another five years. Barring a classic case of cold feet at the 11th hour, the deal seems to be done.

Whew. Who doesn't feel abused or used?

It's not often that a courtship, reconcilation and a potential divorce are played out so publicly. When Pirates CEO and managing owner Brian Petrovek introduced Albany, N.Y., and the Times Union Center to the relationship, you saw some rather naked leveraging. Call it arm-twisting if you want. It got confusing at times.

Who's on the power play today? The trustees, the team owners or some guy in Albany? Sports management types and politicos may be fascinated by this stuff. Not you. Until someone threatens to take your team away.

The sad thing is, this I'll-take-my-puck-and-leave ploy works more times than not. Patriots fans will remember Bob Kraft's grand scheme to move his football team to Hartford. People were soon calculating the miles and travel time. State accountants were counting the addition of tax dollars or the loss, depending on which side of the border they stood.

Kraft played his cards right. He got what he needed to build Gillette Stadium. Now with his shops and restaurants and hotel, he has a destination place in bucolic Foxborough alongside Route 1. Who would have thought?

Petrovek's plans for the Pirates were much more modest. Without knowing the specifics of who offered what to whom between the Pirates, the Cumberland County Civic Center and Albany, it seems he didn't draw the ace to complete his full house.

He does get a bigger share of the pot. Time will tell if it's big enough. He could cash out his share of the Pirates. Or he could stay and work to improve his position. He's done that for 10 years.

Forgotten amid the hand-wringing over the negotiations is that plans to drag a 20th-century grey lady of a civic center into modern times have not died. How to pay for the changes in this economy is the challenge. Plans don't need to shelved.

The product has been overshadowed, although like most other minor-league franchises, this operation runs on dual tracks. Petrovek sells the experience, but the parent Buffalo Sabres own the product and their players sell the tickets.

With the playoffs looming, the Pirates are in second place in the Atlantic Division. Kevin Dineen is still the coach. Leading scorer Marc Mancari rejoined the team this weekend. Tyler Ennis is still scoring. There is life in the old building.

Baseball and basketball fans outnumber hockey fans in America. But don't ever question the hockey fans' commitment to their team.

In the long run, Portland may not be an AHL city. The economics may never work to everyone's satisfaction. Atlantic Canada lost its AHL teams a decade ago. When Tom Ebright brought the Skipjacks north from Baltimore and changed the team name to Pirates, Moncton was one of the three cities in New Brunswick with AHL teams. Fredericton and St. John were the others. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and Sydney, Nova Scotia, had teams. No longer. The St. John's Maple Leafs in Newfoundland were the last to leave, in 2005.

That's not to say hockey died in Atlantic Canada. The game switched brands to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. You know, the league that lists the Lewiston Maineiacs as one of its teams. The league that was the springboard for Sidney Crosby. Downsizing need not be a bad thing.

Don't misunderstand. The Pirates have new life in Portland. Fences can be mended.

Brian Petrovek knows where to buy a new hammer.


Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:


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