September 7, 2013

Steve Solloway: The faceoff that's leaving fans in the cold

Face it, Brian Petrovek and Neal Pratt won't buy each other a drink when the renovated Cumberland County Civic Center opens in January. They won't dip their cups into the water, either. It's no longer drinkable.

Blame it on the swill dumped into it over the years. Doesn't matter anymore who the culprit is. It's time for a flush.

The Portland Pirates sued the Cumberland County Civic Center on Friday. Forget for a moment that the two parties are the professional hockey team and the arena with the biggest footprint in Portland. The lawsuit might as well have the names Petrovek v. Pratt on it.

This is about personalities. This is Maine, where most things are personal. Forget the talk of doing business.

Friday's lawsuit asks for a court-ordered injunction that would prevent the Cumberland County Civic Center from offering the Pirates' game dates to a concert promoter or anyone else with an audience of, say, 5,000 people.

The Pirates wouldn't sign their new lease, saying they've been shortchanged by new numbers. The Cumberland County Civic Center trustees, led by Pratt, say the percentages and projected dollars agreed to in April were guidelines, not fact.

Finger-pointing and brinkmanship. It might be amusing and a spectator sport of its own, if it wasn't so contentious and didn't happen with every negotiation. Whatever became of the thought: How can we work together? It followed please and thank you out the door long ago.

Free the hostages. Pirates fans have been used and abused long enough. I'm talking about the fans who walk up to the ticket windows or buy their season ticket packages on the Internet. The fans who put hockey first, players worth their cheers second and a seat with decent sightlines third.

The off-ice entertainment -- no offense, Salty Pete -- free T-shirts, gourmet snacks and the best selection of craft beers aren't as important. It's hockey before ambiance, not the other way around.

Those are the fans who tell me they'd rather watch Pirates hockey at the Colisee in Lewiston. It's the Pirates' home from Oct. 12 to the end of 2013, much like last season.

The Colisee is rustic to a fault. The excitement and noise make it more personal. Fewer seats, but fewer empty seats. Think Maine Red Claws at the Portland Expo.

Not that an entire season at the Colisee would be economically feasible for Petrovek and his associates. Not that Pirates players would prefer the Colisee's lack of creature comforts.

I don't lay the blame squarely on Petrovek. He doesn't have the personality of his counterparts with the Sea Dogs and Red Claws.

He squeezes and then squeezes more to get the revenue he says he needs to keep the Pirates in Portland. That's the best and the worst of American sports capitalism. His sweat equity is in this franchise.

The problem is he hasn't learned how to not make the squeezing feel like choking. Just ask Pratt and the commissioners. They've learned how to squeeze, too. Rather than working together, we get this perpetual standoff. My lawyer will be talking to your lawyer.

The Sea Dogs and Red Claws learned how to make the average fan feel important. The Pirates, not so much.

Petrovek did recruit Brian Corcoran, the Old Orchard Beach native and owner of Shamrock Sports, to change that this year. Too bad Corcoran wasn't beckoned long ago.

Flush it. Quebec City wants an NHL franchise. Petrovek could move the Pirates there, prime the pump and perhaps be part of an NHL expansion. Good for him.

Hey, 20-some years ago similar bickering pushed the Maine Mariners out of Portland. It took about a year before Tom Ebright brought the Baltimore Skipjacks to town and renamed them the Pirates.

The Cumberland County Civic Center looked every bit the arena built in the Soviet Union days, but it was standing-room-only when the Pirates won the Calder Cup in 1994.

One door closed when the Mariners moved to Providence and another opened.

Hockey isn't music but when rock promoters look past Portland to Manchester, N.H., it doesn't mean this city has become a music wasteland. Not with the Merrill Auditorium, State Theater, Port City Music Hall and One Longfellow Square booking gigs.

Major junior hockey anyone?

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

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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