July 3, 2011

Another step forward

Portland welcomes Phoenix in the change-is-constant world of pro hockey

By Rachel Lenzi rlenzi@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - This year wasn't like other years for the Portland Pirates.

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Washington Capitals, 1993-2005: Glen Hanlon, then coach of the Pirates, leads a practice at the Cumberland County Civic Center in 2004.

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Anaheim Ducks, 2005-2008: Pirates' mascot Salty Pete hams it up with the Anaheim Ducks mascot in 2005.

Additional Photos Below

When it came to finding a new National Hockey League parent club, the Pirates' ownership didn't feel forced into entering an agreement with one team. They weren't locked out by another parent club. They didn't have to settle on a deal solely on the basis of availability, that only one parent team was available, or that the Pirates were the last American Hockey League team available.

Instead, the Pirates had options -- four of them, in fact, before announcing June 27 they had entered a five-year affiliation agreement with the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.

"We didn't create a bidding war," Pirates CEO Brian Petrovek said. "Due diligence gave us so many options. It became fun, interesting and put us in a no-lose situation."

In the last week, four NHL teams have announced new affiliations with four AHL teams -- Phoenix with the Portland Pirates, Buffalo with the Rochester Americans, Vancouver with the Chicago Wolves and Florida with the San Antonio Rampage.

Unlike the stability of Major League Baseball's minor-league system, changes in affiliation are a yearly occurrence in the AHL that, on the surface, suggest instability. But finding and securing an AHL-NHL partnership is a voluntary -- and sometimes necessary -- process that comes as a result of several factors including finances, geography, player development, business philosophies and even sheer timing.

Rick Pych, the president of Spurs Sports and Entertainment, which owns the San Antonio Rampage, said this year's round of changes hinged largely on the outcome of the Pirates' affiliation with the Buffalo Sabres, which ended when the Sabres purchased the Rochester Americans as their new affiliate.

"It was kind of an odd year in that there were a lot of related moving pieces," said Pych, whose team announced its affiliation with the Florida Panthers on Thursday, after a six-year affiliation with the Coyotes expired at the end of the 2010-2011 season. "The sale of the Rochester Americans to the Sabres, that just put a number of things in motion."

ON THE MOVE

Necessitated by the Sabres' purchase of Rochester's AHL affiliate, the Coyotes are the Pirates' fourth parent club since 2005. In each case, there were reasons for change.

The Washington Capitals ended a 12-year relationship with the Pirates at the end of the 2005 season to move their AHL operations to Hershey, Pa.

The Anaheim Ducks did not pick up a two-year option to extend its affiliation with the Pirates -- a process that began in the fall of 2007 when the Ducks owners expressed an interest in moving their minor-league operations closer to California. In the spring of 2008, Anaheim moved its AHL operations to Des Moines, Iowa -- an affiliation that lasted a year.

That year the Sabres, Petrovek said, did not surface as a potential team during initial plans.

But after conferring with the AHL on potential parent clubs -- teams with agreements that might expire, or teams that may not be satisfied with their deals -- Petrovek sought out the Sabres.

He hammered out a deal to link the Pirates with the Sabres over the course of a breakfast in Boston with Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier and Managing Partner/Minority Owner Larry Quinn toward the end of the NHL's 2007-2008 season.

NEW ENGLAND A MUST

This year, the Sabres purchased the Americans and cut ties with the Pirates, 15 months after the two organizations extended their affiliation to 2014.

"The pickings (in 2008) were not as attractive as they were this time around," Petrovek said. "We didn't much have time to look at our options."

At a June 27 news conference to announce the Coyotes-Pirates deal, Petrovek said four teams were interested in affiliating with the Pirates: Phoenix, Florida, the Vancouver Canucks and a fourth team that he did not disclose. Likewise, Pych said that, like the Pirates, four teams were interested in the Rampage as an AHL affiliate, though he would not specify which teams.

"For us, we want an affiliation with an NHL team that believes in the AHL not only as a place to develop and maintain talent, but have players learn what it's like to be in a winning environment," Pych said. Pych also said he understood the intentions that Phoenix GM Don Maloney had in regards to the future of the Coyotes' minor-league affiliate.

"He's been pretty open from Day 1, in what he was used to and his bias towards having a team in New England," Pych said. "If we'd stayed with Phoenix, that would have been fine, too."

But in 10 years of Spurs Sports and Entertainment owning the Rampage, Pych said this was the first year in which an assembly of affiliation announcements came so closely.

"There were certain things that had to happen with other things to happen," Pych said. "We had conversations with other teams that wanted to come to San Antonio, but we had a sense of direction of where it would end up."

CHANGE IS GOOD

In the past two years, seven NHL teams have entered into new affiliations with AHL teams, transplanting their minor-league operations from city to city with each new affiliation. The longest partnership is between Boston and Providence, a 19-year affiliation. While the Pirates have had three-year deals with Anaheim and Buffalo, Petrovek is a self-proclaimed believer in long-term agreements yet has his own concerns about the number of AHL moves that come each year. League owners, he said, have expressed a collective concern when it comes to affiliations.

"Each circumstance has a different background, with different circumstances and different issues," Petrovek said. "Every year we get together as owners, we ask, 'is there a better way to skin the calf?' This is a difficult process, we shouldn't be caught by surprise. Movements are good for a number of reasons at different times, but should we take a different approach? Should we learn from minor-league baseball?

"They have a different length of affiliation. They have a different approach to when it's time to make a move, there's a different method to the madness. It's a little better defined and one that (the AHL) can learn from and move forward."

COMPLICATED PROCESS

Partnerships between NHL teams and AHL teams don't happen overnight. There's a process of due diligence when it comes to scouting out potential parent clubs or potential homes for an affiliate, which includes evaluating player personnel and development models, taking geography into consideration, discussing business developments and negotiating financial terms and the length of an affiliation agreement.

"Going through this process, it's interesting because you get an insight into different organizations," said Brad Treliving, Phoenix's assistant general manager. "You know a lot of the people but when you get in and start talking philosophically, you get a better understanding of people.

"Our goal in coming to this agreement (in Portland) was finding the best place to be, as far as development and being in an environment that spurs competition and growth in players."

And, Treliving added, "This is not a process you want to go through every six months."

Staff Writer Rachel Lenzi can be contacted at 791-6415 or at:

rlenzi@pressherald.com

Twitter: rlenzi

 

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Additional Photos

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Buffalo Sabres, 2008-2011: Buffalo Managing Partner Larry Quinn, left, and General Manager Darcy Regier announce an affiliation with the Pirates in 2008.

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Phoenix Coyotes, 2011-?: Pirates CEO Brian Petrovek announces a partnership with Phoenix last Monday.

Telegram file photos

 


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