Was May 29, 1994 really that long ago?

That was the greatest night in Portland Pirates history, a Sunday on Memorial Day weekend when the Calder Cup was won at what was then called the Cumberland County Civic Center.

More than 7,000 delirious fans celebrated Portland’s 4-1 championship-clinching victory over the Moncton Hawks. The party lasted long into the night.

Fans today are certainly experiencing a different feeling.

The Pirates are leaving, bound for Springfield, Massachusetts, as soon as the sale is approved by the AHL and the parent Florida Panthers.

Hopes, of course, are that another team will come in, that hockey will live at the Cross Insurance Arena.


But it won’t be the same.

Just as the Pirates, with their off-the-wall promotions and characters, were different from their predecessor, the Maine Mariners, the next team will not be able to match what the Pirates brought to this city.

I covered the team for its first six seasons. I saw them at their very best – winning the AHL championship – and their very worst – the forgettable experiment that was the dual-affiliation (Washington-Chicago) season of 1998-99 that saw them produce the fewest wins (23) and points (55) in franchise history.

But more than anything, I saw a city embrace a team and its players and coaches.

The team could be good or bad – mostly good, with 17 playoff appearances in 23 seasons – and the fans would still love its players.

I had the chance to return to cover Portland’s 6-4 win over the Hershey Bears in the first game of the playoffs this year. I sensed the same bond with the fans who attended that night.


Yes, attendance waned: They were last or next-to-last in attendance in the last three years. The exodus to Lewiston for a year didn’t help. Fans in the Portland area took it as a slap in the face and some didn’t return.

Winning always helped. In fact, the two best attendance seasons in the last decade came in years following division titles: 2006-07 (5,260) and 2011-12 (5,158). Interestingly the Pirates didn’t make the playoffs in either of those years.

But any player who skated a shift here knew this was a special place to play whether the team was winning or losing.

“It was my second home,” said Kevin “Killer” Kaminski, perhaps the favorite Pirate of all time, in a phone call Wednesday from Cozumel, Mexico, where he was vacationing. “It was my first home-away-from-home. I always came back.

“I got to know some good businessmen while I was there. And that led to some great friendships which have lasted to this day.”

You could hear the hurt and disbelief in his voice. Kaminski owned a home in Raymond. He had a hockey school here for years.


“I don’t understand it, especially with all the building renovations they just did,” said Kaminski, now the head coach of a junior hockey team in Lafayette, Louisiana. “When we were there we had a locker room, a couple of weights and some bikes. That was it.

“When you look at the tradition of hockey in Portland, with the Mariners before the Pirates, there were some great players who went on to play in the NHL.”

Kaminski, Kerry Clark, Martin Gendron, Michel Picard, Olaf Kolzig, Byron Dafoe, Mike Boback, Kent Hulst, Andrew Brunette, Jeff Nelson, Todd Nelson, Brian Curran, Chris Jensen, Martin Brochu, Ron Tugnutt, Jeff Sirkka, Richard Zednik, Steve Poapst. Coaches Barry Trotz, Kevin Dineen, Glen Hanlon.

These are just some of the players who skated for the Pirates and the coaches who led them, guys who left their mark in the community.

The Pirates, under the direction of late owner Tom Ebright, made sure in the early days that their players were seen in all the right places in the community.

“And it wasn’t anything the front office had to tell us,” said Kaminski. “Someone came up and asked if we could go to their daughter’s birthday, we did it. Someone asked us if we could guest bartend, we did it.”


The affiliates changed over the years, from the Capitals to Anaheim to Buffalo to Arizona to the Florida Panthers. Maybe that discontinuity hurt. Maybe the fans couldn’t identify with the players.

But Eric Weinrich, the local kid who played 17 years in the NHL and finished his playing career with the Pirates in the 2007-08 season, said Portland “was a place that has always been welcoming to the players.”

Portland has been without an AHL team before – the year between the Mariners leaving for Providence and the Pirates arriving from Baltimore.

That’s the way the AHL is. Manchester won the Calder Cup a year ago and lost its team. Springfield just lost its team to Tucson after having an AHL affiliate for 80 years, and now has the Pirates.

The news will cause angst but not for long. This franchise made hockey fun again after the beloved Mariners left. So rather than weep, embrace the memories of the good times. There were plenty of them.


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