Minor-league hockey could return to Portland as soon as the fall of 2017 if a partnership between a former player and former team executive proves successful.

The Portland Pirates announced last week that the team has been sold and will leave the city. The American Hockey League’s Board of Governors will meet within two weeks to vote on the sale and relocation of the franchise to Springfield, Massachusetts.

W. Godfrey Wood, general manager and president of the Pirates during their first three seasons, and Brad Church, a former Pirates player and the team’s chief operating officer for the past two years, are building a team of investors to bring an ECHL team to Cross Insurance Arena.

The ECHL – formed in 1988 as the East Coast Hockey League and now comprising 28 teams from Alaska to Florida – is considered the third tier of professional hockey in North America, below the National Hockey League and the AHL.

“It’s a good product,” Wood said. “It’s very good, aggressive hockey.”

Wood and Church hope to land an ECHL expansion team in June. If so, they plan to keep the Pirates name and original logo and begin play in the 2017-18 season.


In an effort to boost attendance, they also would reduce ticket prices and offer discounts for children, students and seniors – a pricing structure that the AHL Pirates did not offer the past two seasons. The Pirates charged $18 for single-game tickets last season; Wood said Wednesday that general admission is likely to be $8 for the new team.

Unlike the AHL Pirates, which paid a yearly affiliation fee of $800,000 to the NHL’s Florida Panthers to help offset the salaries of players and coaches, ECHL teams pay no fees to their NHL affiliate, Church said.

“With the expense base, you can be a little more creative,” Church said. “We can have a much lower ticket price. The goal is to turn this back into a family event.”


The Pirates finished last in attendance among the AHL’s 30 teams in 2014-15 (2,963 fans per game) and 29th in 2015-16 (3,363). ECHL teams averaged 4,386 fans during the 2015-16 regular season.

Wood and Church aren’t the only ones to express interest in bringing a pro hockey team to Portland.


Mayor Ethan Strimling said Wednesday he has been approached by other “investor groups” wanting to bring an ECHL team here, though he declined to identify them.

Neal Pratt, a member of the Cross arena board of trustees, said this week, “There’s been a lot of interest expressed already … by parties at least exploring the potential for a hockey team in Portland.”

On Wednesday, the trustees announced formation of a “Strategic Development Committee to explore opportunities to bring a sports tenant to Cross Insurance Arena,” according to a statement.

Wood, a former chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber and now executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland, said the new team would probably seek a change in the terms of the lease with the arena, but he declined to offer specifics.

“We want to make sure this works and is sustainable,” he said.

In February, the ECHL approved an expansion franchise in Worcester, Massachusetts, which lost its AHL team after the 2014-15 season. The Worcester Railers plan to begin play in the fall of 2017 and bring the league to 29 teams.


“Our goal is ultimately to get to 30 teams,” said Joe Babik, the league’s director of communications. “There is space for one more membership at this time.”

The ECHL has one other team based in New England. The Manchester Monarchs just finished their first ECHL season in New Hampshire after the city’s AHL franchise departed for California.

Babik said requirements for a franchise are an ownership group, an arena lease and a business plan. After a background check, the ECHL board of governors would vote on any application.

All but three current ECHL teams – Alaska, Colorado and Wichita – are affiliated with an NHL franchise, which typically supplies a handful of players. The rest of the roster plays under a standard ECHL contract. Each team is restricted by a salary cap, and also takes care of housing, travel and equipment costs. The salary cap limits team payroll to $12,500 a week, Wood said.

The ECHL’s expansion fee is $750,000, Wood said. If they don’t land an expansion franchise, Wood said they would pursue an existing ECHL team and move it to Portland, although the price probably would be higher. Church said he knows of one existing franchise that may be available, but prefers to go the expansion route.

When the ECHL Board of Governors convenes next month in Las Vegas, Church said he plans to have a formal expansion application ready for review. The ECHL schedule for 2016-17 is already in place, Babik said.


“My intention is to come out of there approved to compete in ’17-18,” Church said.


Church played for five ECHL clubs and was both an assistant and a head coach as well as director of hockey operations for another, the now-defunct Phoenix RoadRunners.

“So I have a really good understanding of the product on the ice, the quality of player that competes in the league and a real good knowledge of the operating model and what it takes to make it all work,” Church said.

Kevin Sullivan, 31, of Windham is a lifelong Pirates fan who has mixed reactions to the possibility of an ECHL franchise in Portland. He views the ECHL brand of hockey as “more old-style, with a lot more hitting and more fighting” than the AHL, so that may appeal to the casual fan.

“I talked about it with my friends,” he said. “I think for the hard-core fans, it’s a little disappointing because we’re so used to the AHL being here. But a lot of my friends who are hockey fans but not hard-core, they just want something to do with their family.”


The most encouraging aspect of the news, he said, is that Church and Wood are involved.

“At least you have people familiar with the area and with hockey,” Sullivan said, “and not some random guy with money.”

The decision to sell and move the AHL Pirates surprised city officials, who said the fans attending games in Portland are a key part of the downtown winter economy, boosting sales at local restaurants and bars.

The Pirates’ lease with the county includes a $100,000 penalty for breaking the agreement. The arena’s trustees said team officials contacted them in April and said they wanted to renegotiate the lease, which has three more years to run. Before those negotiations concluded, however, the team was sold.

The arena’s board and Spectra, a management company that runs the arena, have refused to say how much money the arena takes in from hockey games. A Freedom of Information Act request for that information filed by the Portland Press Herald is pending.

Calls to Mitchell Berkowitz, the chair of the arena’s board of trustees, and Matt Herpich, the manager of the arena for Spectra, were not returned Wednesday.


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