April 30, 2011

Scott Wasser: There's one giant step left for Pirates CEO

The way Brian Petrovek keeps talking about "finishing the job" and "crossing the finish line," you'd swear he was a bricklayer or an Olympic sprinter rather than CEO of a professional hockey team.

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Brian Petrovek says he is determined to realize his goal of improving the facility that's home to his Pirates hockey team.

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On the other hand, bricklayers have a pretty good idea how long a job is going to take, and Olympic sprinters know exactly where their finish line is.

Petrovek's objectives, meanwhile, have been unexpectedly elusive for the nearly 11 years he has been running the Portland Pirates' American Hockey League franchise.

Elusive? That's an understatement. The objectives are so different today from what they were when Petrovek began his current quest that the finish line might as well be in another dimension.

Getting to the finish line must have seemed so much simpler back in 1998 and '99, when he and high-powered Massachusetts sports attorney Lyman Bullard began thinking about "pulling together a group with the intent of finding a market where we could own both a minor league baseball and hockey team," according to Petrovek.

The two former Harvard University hockey teammates formed a coalition of 30 investors, mostly friends and other former teammates, and initially set their sights on acquiring baseball and hockey franchises in Manchester, N.H. When that proved "too rich for our appetite," Petrovek said, they turned their attention north after learning Portland's AHL franchise was available.

Maine was an easy choice, even if the minor league baseball team owned by Dan Burke was unavailable. Bullard's family had owned a summer home in Prouts Neck, and Petrovek's in-laws had owned one in Biddeford Pool "forever."

"It was a quality-of-life thing, a decision of the heart as well as the mind," Petrovek recalled.

So he and Bullard and their partners decided by the summer of 2000 to pursue the Pirates, and by the fall they owned them.

What they simultaneously inherited was a home rink in a 20-year-old building in apparent need of renovation. Now the building is well over 30 years old, and the joint still hasn't been renovated.

It needs to be. Visit the arenas in Manchester, Albany, N.Y., and even Wilkes-Barre, Pa., homes to other AHL teams, and the Cumberland County Civic Center looks and feels like a relic.

The player benches are more crowded than Old Orchard Beach on a warm summer day. One team's backup goalie needs to watch the game from between the penalty boxes. The other has it even worse, sharing space with the Zamboni that reconditions the ice between periods.

And it's not just about the players. The Civic Center doesn't have to get close to its approximately 7,000-seat hockey capacity to make a claustrophobic break out in hives. Its lobby and concourses get so crowded that getting from Point A to Point B is an exercise in futility or Gandhi-like patience.

The food-service areas are so limited you might have to go from one side of the arena clear around to the other for fried dough or a beer. And you'd better get in line before the end of one period or you might not make it back to see most of the next.

And the bathrooms? I've seen Memorial Day parades with shorter lines than some Civic Center ladies-room queues.

According to its mission statement, the Civic Center was conceived 35 years ago to "bring the Nation's biggest stars and best entertainment to the people of Maine." From what I understand, it now has trouble luring the top acts because its parking facilities, dressing rooms and staging areas are deemed inadequate by the performers.

Petrovek may not have realized how inadequate the facility was when he and his partners purchased the Pirates, but it didn't take him long to find out. Within a few years of acquiring the franchise, there was speculation the team might move. A new five-year contract was signed in 2005, but the Civic Center still hadn't been renovated by the time that ran out.

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