September 27, 2013

Steve Solloway: Sweet smell of old-time hockey in Lewiston

By Steve Solloway

The squabbling over control of the Cumberland County Civic Center will go on and you won't have to listen. The Pirates and their fans have a new home for the coming season. It will be rustic and cramped, and maybe too warm from all the body heat.

click image to enlarge

Tobias Rieder of the Portland Pirates takes the puck down the ice as Marc-Antoine Desnoyers of the University of New Brunswick moves in during an exhibition at MHG Ice Centre in Saco on Wednesday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But the welcome lights at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee will be bright.

Brian Petrovek made good on his threat. He's taking his pucks and his borrowed hockey players out of Portland and moving up the Maine Turnpike to Lewiston. Not for the first two months of the AHL season as planned while renovations to the Civic Center continue. The move is for the entire season.

Listening to the harsh words accompanying Thursday's announcement, it doesn't sound like he and the team are coming back. Although Petrovek did say he'll keep fighting the Civic Center's board of trustees in court for a better revenue-sharing arrangement. The businessman in Petrovek wants to be a partner in managing the Civic Center, not a long-term tenant. After paying rent for more than a decade and putting fans in the seats, he wanted a bigger voice and a bigger piece of the pie.

His landlord, otherwise known as Neal Pratt, looked at his stakeholders, otherwise known as county taxpayers, and said they were weary of subsidizing someone else's franchise. To which Petrovek and the Pirates' ownership group might have suggested they've been subsidizing the Civic Center with 13 seasons worth of home dates.

Call it irreconcilable differences. They should ditch the lawyers and get with mediators and counselors. Instead, Petrovek is walking. The Phoenix Coyotes, who provide the players, say they're OK with it all.

It's a good move. If you like the up-close and personal experience, the Colisee is for you. If you want to hear grunts and smell sweat with your hockey, the Colisee will give you that. If you want to hear noise that bounces from the nooks and crannies of that old barn, you'll get that. If you want electricity that can crackle in the air, that's the place.

It takes good hockey to create that experience, of course. Somehow the Colisee turns fans into participants. At the Civic Center, hockey fans too often remain spectators. The free T-shirts shot into the crowd got you out of your seat all the time. A great goal or great save, not so much.

Maybe it's the simple math. Put 3,000 fans into the Civic Center and you've got just as many empty seats. Put 3,000 into the Colisee and the house is almost full.

Can an AHL franchise survive financially with those numbers? Long-term, probably not. Short-term, the Pirates could turn the Colisee into an old-time funhouse.

Forty years ago the Colisee was home to the short-lived Maine Nordiques of the short-lived North American Hockey League. Know that the NAHL was the basis of the fictitious Federal League from the movie "Slap Shot," starring Paul Newman, as Reggie Dunlop, the player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs.

To boost attendance in a fictitious city struggling with closed factories and too many out-of-work fans, the Chiefs became fight-a-minute goons. The AHL has moved far away from that and doesn't need to return. But it was up close and personal hockey.

Yes, if you live in Portland or south, you don't want the longer drive. Many of you are accustomed to celebrating a Pirates win or taking consolation in a loss by walking to a watering hole after the game. Can't do that at the Colisee. You may abandon the team.

Know that Lewiston was Maine's first hockey town. Augusta and Waterville have hockey fans and now they're 30 minutes closer.

Maybe Petrovek and Pratt can find common ground. Maybe the bridge was burned and there's no going back.

This time hockey fans shouldn't feel burned. Breathe some nostalgia even if it is for an entire season. The Pirates are returning to hockey's roots. The players may chafe at the lack of amenities. But then, hockey has never been a soft game.

See you in Lewiston.

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

Twitter: SteveSolloway


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