After months of musical chairs involving American Hockey League franchises – including five National Hockey League teams shifting their AHL affiliates to California – the Portland Pirates ensured stability by announcing a four-year affiliation agreement with the NHL’s Florida Panthers, starting with the 2015-16 season.

“I think we’re both very optimistic that this could be something that could be real good for a long time,” Pirates’ chief operating officer Brad Church said Wednesday.

The Pirates are in their fourth and final season as an affiliate of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, who would prefer to have their top minor-league club closer to the West Coast, particularly now that a Pacific Division of the AHL is planned for next season.

Florida will become Portland’s fourth NHL affiliate since 2005.

Church said he began looking for a new partner after the Coyotes – “through no fault of theirs, with the Pacific Division and with their ownership finally getting solidified a month ago” – could not commit to a long-term deal to remain in Portland.

Eric Joyce, an assistant general manager with the Panthers, is general manager of their current AHL club in San Antonio and plans to continue that role next season in Portland. A native of Dorchester, Massachusetts, Joyce shared a media conference call with Church on Wednesday afternoon.

“We are extremely excited to affiliate with the Pirates and have our players develop in such an exciting atmosphere, with such knowledgeable fans,” said Joyce. “Winning is a very large part of our development. What you can expect is a team that consistently competes for championships.”

The Panthers and Pirates have a few things in common. Both began playing professional hockey in 1993 and found early success. The Pirates won the AHL’s Calder Cup championship in 1994 and returned to the finals in 1996, the same year the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals before getting swept by Colorado.

Kevin Dineen coached for both clubs, leading the Pirates from 2005 to 2011 and the Panthers immediately thereafter. Florida won the franchise’s only Southeast Division title in 2012 under Dineen but lost a seven-game first-round playoff to New Jersey. The Panthers dropped to fifth and missed the 2013 playoffs and Dineen was fired after 16 games of the 2013-14 season.

In Dineen’s six seasons in Portland, the Pirates missed the playoffs only once, in 2007.

After the Coyotes signed on, the Pirates missed the playoffs in 2012, lost in the first round in 2013 and endured a difficult season last winter in Lewiston and wound up last in the AHL in both attendance and winning percentage.


This season, with the infusion of veterans such as center Alexandre Bolduc, defenseman Dylan Reece and goaltender Mike McKenna, the Pirates are much improved. They bring a seven-game winning streak into a weekend series against the visiting Hershey Bears and sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference (with eight playoff spots available). Ten of their final 15 regular-season games are scheduled in Portland.

Church emphasized the professional relationship between the Pirates and Coyotes throughout the uncertain season and thanked players, coaches, staff members and Arizona’s front office for their understanding.

“It’s been a really good partnership to date,” he said, “and we’re going to continue to support them through what we hope is a long playoff run.”

The Panthers are Portland’s fifth NHL affiliate since the Pirates came to town in 1993 as junior partners of the Washington Capitals. There was a dual affiliation with Chicago and Washington for the 1998-99 season, a switch to Anaheim for three seasons beginning in 2005, then to Buffalo for three more beginning in 2008 before the Coyotes in 2011.

During that same time frame, the Panthers have partnered with AHL franchises in North Carolina (Greensboro), Connecticut (New Haven), Kentucky (Lexington and Louisville), Texas (San Antonio twice) and New York (Rochester).

Joyce said having an affiliate in the same time zone, as well as one that travels mostly by bus rather than plane, will help with player development.

“Portland offered us more practice time and we monitor things like sleep patterns and nutrition, things on a bus league that you can take care of,” Joyce said. “Rest and nutrition are as important as work in the gym and on the ice. San Antonio, through no fault of its own, is a tough place for players to stay on the rigorous program we ask them to stay on.”

Ron Cain, the Pirates’ majority owner, and Vincent Viola, the Panthers’ majority owner, met shortly after Christmas and found common ground with the “virtues and values of both organizations,” Cain said, “and the importance put on community. So I couldn’t be more happy moving forward with what this partnership is going to do.”


The Panthers are last in the NHL in attendance this season, fueling rumors about a relocation to Quebec City, where a new 18,500-seat hockey arena is scheduled to open in the fall. That city has been without an NHL franchise since the Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995 and became the Avalanche.

In December, co-owner Doug Cifu told The Hockey News that the Panthers “lost a good deal of money last year and we’ll lose a good deal of money this year. In the long term, that’s not sustainable.”

The Panthers are trying to amend their lease with Broward County on the BB&T Center in Sunrise, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. The current deal runs out in 2028. Despite the financial woes and poor attendance, Cifu said the Panthers “are not moving and we’ve consistently said we have no plans or intentions to move.”

Church said partnering with an NHL club that might wind up in Quebec City “wasn’t on my radar when I was out looking for an affiliate, for sure.”

The four-year deal with Florida dovetails with the remaining four years on Portland’s lease with trustees of Cross Insurance Arena.

“Our hope is that not only our lease but this partnership can extend for many, many years,” Church said. “We’re happy to have stability now in Portland with everything that’s gone on over the last 18 months.”

Ray Edwards, the Pirates’ four-year head coach, came to Portland from San Antonio in 2011.

The Rampage have missed the AHL playoffs in five of the previous six seasons but are currently fourth in the Western Conference.

Tom Rowe is in his second season as head coach of San Antonio after spending a little over a year coaching in Russia. After a playing career that included NHL stints with the Capitals, the Hartford Whalers and the Detroit Red Wings, Rowe became an AHL assistant coach in Lowell before becoming a head coach, first in Lowell and then in Albany. He returned to the NHL as an assistant with the Carolina Hurricanes and remained with them for three seasons until heading to Russia in 2012.

“All the coaches, trainers and players will be employees of the Florida Panthers,” said Church, who played briefly for Rowe in Lowell in 2002, about next season’s roster. “We won’t have any control over who they hire or fire or any of that stuff.”

Church also said no name or logo changes are planned.

“We’ll always be the Pirates,” he said.

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