Maine Hockey Journal

1.) Ebright keeps his promise

Portland, ME – When the late Tom Ebright brought his AHL team to Portland from Baltimore, Maryland, he stood on the steps of city hall in front of a handful of hockey faithful in attendance and made two promises.

He promised to bring respectability and prominence back to the Civic Center – something that was non-existent for several years under the Maine Mariners – and he said he would make the newly named Portland Pirates a championship caliber team.

As Ebright’s legacy endures in Maine, it’s become very clear that not only did he keep his promises, but also, he didn’t waste much time in making those promises come true.

Something fans of the Portland Pirates will never forget.

Ebright, a financial banker from Maryland, was looking for a new home for his hockey team, the Baltimore Skipjacks, after years of losing money. The city of Portland was looking for a hockey team after the Mariners left the prior year for Providence, Rhode Island.

It almost seemed like the perfect marriage, a city wanting a hockey team and a hockey team wanting a city to play in.

The Portland Pirates would begin play on the road, opening their season on Oct. 8, 1993 in Providence, RI, ironically, against the former Maine Mariners, now referred as the Providence Bruins.

Steve Konowalchuk would notch a hat trick as part of his five-point night and Randy Pearce was credited with the game-winning goal as Portland defeated Providence, 6-3 in a fight-filled contest. Capitals prospect Byron Dafoe had 22 saves in the win.

Only two nights later, Konowalchuk eclipsed his previous record by scoring four goals in a game, for a 6-2 win, against the Hershey Bears.

By the time, the Pirates returned home, they were 2-0, having outscored their opponents 12-4. The city was abuzz with excitement as once again, the Cumberland County Civic Center was rocking to sounds of American Hockey League action and the Pirates didn’t disappoint those in attendance.

John Slaney scored the game-winning goal and Dafoe made 15 saves as the Pirates held on for a thrilling 3-2 victory over the Saint John Flames.

Tom Ebright knew he had winner on his hands, and so didn’t the city of Portland.

As the season progressed, the Pirates didn’t have to worry about who was going to score as the team had several quality high offensive forwards in the lineup. Led by Jeff Nelson, the Pirates were a potent bunch when they had the puck. Nelson led the team with 107 points (34g, 73a), good enough for fourth in AHL scoring. It didn’t stop there at Michel Picard came on board roughly 10 games into the season and was lights out most nights, giving opposing defenseman nightmares. In 61 games, he would put up 85 points (41g, 44a) and was Portland’s leading goal scorer.

They weren’t the only goal scorers for Portland, however.

Randy Pearce (32g, 36a), Kent Hulst (34g, 33a), Captain Chris Jensen (33g, 28a), Mike Boback (16g, 43a) and Martin Jiranek (15g, 37a) all had 50+ points on the season as their contributions also played a role in the Pirates success.

In addition, it became abundantly clear the Pirates weren’t going to be a team to be pushed around. If they couldn’t outscore their opponent, they’d just beat them up, but one way or another, they’d pay a price for playing the Pirates.

Kevin Kaminski, often referred as “Killer Kaminski” and Kerry Clark, the younger and untenably dressed brother of Wendel Clark were often not far from action when called upon as they formed the tandem known as the Bruise Brothers – I’m some people still have one of those poster?

During a three-month span, Kaminski played 27 games, amassing a total 173 of his 263 penalty minutes on the season. That was 60 minutes more, during the same span, as second place tough guy Fredericton’s Donald Brashear. That, however, didn’t match the season total of 309 penalty minutes put up by Clark, who only played 55 games that season.

In order for the Pirates win the Calder Cup or even make the playoffs, they needed to have all the pieces in place and it had to start in goal. The ‘93-‘94 season was a special one for the Pirates as far as goaltending was concerned. With Washington having a solid goaltending tandem with Don Beaupre and Rick Tabaracci, it left Portland with skilled netminders in Byron Dafoe and Olaf Kolzig. Neither disappointed the home fans.

Both Dafoe and Kolzig were ranked in the top-5 among goaltenders in the AHL and on any night, Pirates fans knew they were in for a show.

Kolzig played 26 games, only losing eight times during the season. He had a 3.06 goals against average with a .906 save percentage and recorded three shutouts. Dafoe nestled a 3.36GAA with .891 save percentage and was considered a one of the best in the AHL with 24 wins on the season.

The blueline of the Pirates was one of the toughest to play against in the AHL and the stingiest too, allowing only 3.36 goals per game. It was something both Pirates’ GM Godfrey Wood and owner Tom Ebright knew had to be strong in order to compete on a night in and night out basis, so they started by picking up Brian Curran from the Cape Breton Oilers. Curran was that veteran presence needed on defense as the 30 year old veteran had 381 games in the NHL.

It didn’t stop there as Portland was further bolstered by youngsters Todd Nelson, older brother of Jeff Nelson, Jason Woolley, Steve Poapst, Ken Klee and journeymen players like Jeff Sirkka – who played for both the Maine Mariners and Portland Pirates – and Jim Mathieson.

The Pirates defense was envy of many in the AHL.

The Pirates were part of the Northern Division along with Adirondack, Albany, Springfield and Providence and every night was a battle for points.

After opening the season with the 6-3 win over the Providence Bruins, it was clear who the rival of the Pirates would be. Often know as the Battle of I-95, the Pirates and Bruins still to today fight as if each game would win the Calder Cup.

It wasn’t Portland’s only rival as they developed a nice little hatred for the Adirondack Red Wings. A team that was also stacked with talent such as Tim Taylor, Steve Maltais, Jason York, Martin Lapointe and Aaron Ward – most went on to have solid NHL careers.

The Pirates and Red Wings battled all year for the division, as the Pirates would win the season series, 4-3-1, but it was Adirondack (45-27-8) who won the division, beating the Pirates (43-27-10) by just two points.

Portland would have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs as they met up with the Albany River Rats. It wasn’t the start the Pirates were looking for as they dropped the first game, 3-1, but rebounded in a big way as Mike Boback scored his first professional hat trick, sending the fans home happy with a 5-3 win to tie the series even at 1-1.

The win in game two gave the Pirates all the momentum they needed as they traveled to Knickerbocker Arena for the next three games.

The Pirates outscored Albany, 16-4, including a 9-2 thrashing as Boback tied an AHL record with seven points (3g, 4a) in the game, taking the series 4-1.

Up next were the Adirondack Red Wings.

The Red Wings were a team that battled the Pirates hard all season long and the Northern Division Finals would be no different.

Because the Red Wings won the division, they had home-ice advantage and they would use in game one as Steve Maltais scored two goals in 4-2 win to grab the early 1-0 series for Adirondack.

The next night was also a nail-biter for those in attendance as the game was tied 3-3 until early in the third period when Jason Woolley broke the tied, sneaking a backhander by goaltender Daniel Berthiaume. The Pirates were happy and relieved to head back to Portland with the series tied at one.

With the next three games at the Civic Center, Portland had regained a slight home-ice advantage, but game three looked like it was going to be all Red Wings. They’d scored three first period goals, but Kolzig stopped 24 shots in the final two periods of play and Portland completed the comeback as Michal Picard scored a power play goal at 10:27 of the third period, giving the Pirates a 2-1 series lead.

If the season series was any indication, Adirondack wasn’t giving up without a fight and fight they did as goaltender Daniel Berthiaume stopped 29 of 30 shots, in a 5-1 beating of the Pirates at the Civic Center. However, it was more than a beating on scoreboard as it was a physical game to say the least. Kevin Kaminski received a match penalty and automatic one-game suspension for his action on the ice in third period.

With tempers flaring and the series tied 2-2, both teams were looking to lay claim to an important fifth game of the series. Portland built a 3-0 lead on stellar play by Kolzig, but a third period charge by the Red Wings left the Pirates clinging to the final minutes as the game was in serious doubt until Chris Jensen scored an empty-net goal, giving the Pirates a 4-2 win and just one win away from the Calder Cup finals.

The series made its return back to Glens Falls, NY for game six of the Northern Division final and it was a game for the ages.

Kaminski, back from his one game suspension, scored twice including the game-tying goal at 6:39 of the third period to send the game to overtime, but just 15 seconds in OT, it looked like the Pirates were heading for game seven. If not for Kolzig, the game would have been over as he stopped Gord Kruppke on a breakaway as one of 31 saves on the night to keep the game tied.

At 4:52, Jeff Sirkka fired a 45-footer past Berthiaume, which left the Glens Falls Civic Center stunned as the Pirates jumped on top of Sirkka at center ice, celebrating the victory and chance to battle for the Calder Cup.

The Pirates headed back to Portland as North Division Champions and now were wondering whom the next opponent would be.

Because the Pirates had the best overall record of the three division winners, they would get a bye to the finals and the all-important home ice advantage as the Cornwall Aces and Moncton Hawks had to play in a best-of-three playoff to see who would advance and play the Pirates.

Moncton had an easy time beating Cornwall, winning the series 2-0, as they’d meet Portland for the Calder Cup finals.

The Pirates and Hawks spilt the first two games of the series with Portland winning the first game, 5-1, while Moncton came back with a 6-2 win. The Hawks headed back home feeling good about themselves with the next three game were in Moncton.

Kolzig played one of his best games of the playoffs, making 37 saves in game three as Moncton was certainly the better team on this night, but sometimes the better doesn’t always win as Randy Pearce scored his first goal of the playoff, securing a 4-3 win to put the Pirates up 2-1 in the series.

Two nights later, the story was again the magnificent play of Kolzig as he made 49 saves in the game that remained tied for over 80 minutes. At 1:41 of the second OT, Kent Hulst found is way to the crease and stuffed a rebound by Hawks’ goaltender Stephane Beauregard, giving the Pirates a 3-1 series lead.

Now the Pirates were one game away from hoisting the Calder Cup and the fans could feel the energy and were anxiously listening to the every play-by-play call from Tom Caron and Frank Fixaris. While the fans were anticipating a championship, the players knew they still had work to do.

Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was the unknown, but the Pirates came out flatter than Brooklyn style pizza in game five and never recovered as Moncton was all over Portland early and often.

For the first time during the season, the Pirates were shutout as Beauregard made 21 saves in a 4-0 victory, sending the series back to Portland where a champion would be crowned.

The Civic Center was electric for game six as 7,142 enthusiastic fans crammed into every nook and cranny, screaming to the top of their lungs.

When the game started, the tension was so thick it could be cut with a knife. Neither team wanted to make a mistake nor give up the first goal because so far in the series, the team who gave up the first goal went on to lose the game.

With 53 seconds left in the period, Moncton’s Ross Wilson picked up his own rebound in the crease and slipped it underneath Kolzig for a power play goal, giving the Hawks a 1-0 lead.

If the pattern stayed true then game seven was just 48 hours later, but in the second period, the Pirates found their legs and scoring touch when Chris Jensen, beat Beauregard with a wrist shot through a screen, giving the Civic Center life as Portland tied the game at 1-1.

It was the first goal allowed by Beauregard in 82:31, but once the Pirates pierced the amour, the goals just flooded in. Jeff Nelson scored his 10th of the playoffs with an unassisted goal, giving the Pirates a 2-1 lead.
In the third period, the Pirates sealed the victory and the Calder Cup with a pair of goals by Michal Picard and Jason Allison, who received the best birthday present ever, celebrating his 19th birthday.

When the final buzzer sounded, the Civic Center erupted into pandemonium and joyous chaos. The players rushed onto the ice to celebrate, people stood wherever they could find room in the aisle or on their seats to catch a glimpse of the Calder Cup, as it was present to team and Kolzig, who was named AHL playoff MVP for his amazing playoff run.

People also rushed into the streets, carrying flags and banners and honked their car horns until the wee hours of the morning.

It was a sight, thought only to be reserved, for the Word Series or Stanley Cup, but Portland made sure to have an all night celebration of their own and it didn’t stop there.

A few days later, the Pirates gathered on those same steps at city hall that Tom Ebright did less than a year earlier and paid thanks to the city of the Portland for a wonderful season, the thousands who attended the parade did the same in return, even as the skies grew ominously dark. The skies eventually opened up pouring rain, but hardly anyone left as they weren’t about to pass up a chance miss an ounce of the celebration.

It was a season that lasted over eight months, ending with the Calder Cup. What was a little rain to those who followed the team on a whirlwind season?

To this day, the ‘93-’94 Pirates remain as the gold standard by which all Pirates teams are compared too and it’s not just because they won the Calder Cup. They haven’t been the most talented team the Pirates ever had, but this team had character, grit and passion both on the ice and off. From Tom Ebright, who was at every game with his wife Joyce, wearing his #50 Pirates jersey, shaking the hands of fans when they entered the arena to Pirates’ G.M. Godfrey Wood, who knew the type of talent needed to win and didn’t hesitate. Barry Trotz, who won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s coach of the year and the players who inspired a whole new generation of hockey fans, while recapturing the hearts of the old fans who thought all was lost when the Mariners left.

So, while Mr. Ebright is no longer with us, we can always say he was a man of his word as he kept his promise in making the Pirates Calder Cup Champions.

10.) Ebright saves hockey in Portland
9.) Pirates look within to eliminate Bruins
8.) Pirates’ Brochu wows the crowd in Binghamton
7.) Pirates set a franchise record for the quickest two goals in a period
6.) Pirates put up a dozen on the Bruins
5.) Boback rolls a seven in Albany
4.) Pirates and Bears engage in epic battle
3.) Hulst and Kolzig put Pirates in the driver’s seat
2.) Pirates set North American record

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