Maine Hockey Journal

ECHL coming to Portland?

Could the Portland Pirates rise from the ashes and make a return to the Cross Insurance Arena?

That’s the plan according to various media sources as former Pirates’ Chief Operating Officer Brad Church, who has formed a partnership with the team’s original general manager Godfrey Wood to bring an ECHL franchise to Portland for the 2017-18 season.

Wood, who is currently executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland, was the Pirates’ first general manager, joining the late Tom Ebright in bringing hockey back to Portland.

Ebright, an investment banker from Maryland and owner of the Baltimore Skipjacks, relocated his hockey team to Portland after a one-year absence following the Maine Mariners departure to Providence, Rhode Island in 1992.

The Pirates would spend 23 seasons in Portland as an American Hockey League franchise before being sold to a group of investors that plan to move the team to Springfield, Massachusetts for the 2016-17 season.

Attendance for the Pirates had been on the rebound since returning to Portland for the 2014-15 season after a one-year hiatus to Lewiston due to renovations to the CIA and a lease dispute with county trustees.

The team averaged 3,363 this past season, up from 2,963 during 2014-15.

While announce attendance fluctuated, mainly to due to comp tickets distributed by previous ownership, the team’s actual gate attendance, people who are actually in attendance, showed that since the Pirates relocated to Portland in 1993, they’ve averaged 3,600 fans per game.

Only during the first two seasons in Portland did actual gate attendance reach over 5,000 fans per game and only once since 1997 had the team’s gate attendance eclipsed over 4,000 fans per game.

Cumberland County taxpayers approved a $34 million renovation bond in 2011 to improve the concourse, add more bathrooms as well as improve locker rooms and backstage amenities. The project was completed in 2014, but following the 2012-13 season, the team’s lease expired and both sides got into a long protracted dispute. The result was the Pirates suing the trustees for breach of contract, forcing the team to play the entire 2013-14 season at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

Cain became majority owner in Dec. 2013 and worked out a new five-year lease agreement with the trustees less than a month later. Former managing owner/CEO Brian Petrovek, now President of the ECHL Adirondack Thunder, was replaced by Church, who was named Chief Operating Officer.

The Pirates recently completed the second year of the five-year lease agreement as Cain approached the trustees a few weeks ago about making changes to the lease agreement as an attempt to reduce operating cost. There were discussions about the Panthers purchasing the Pirates in order to keep them in Portland, but no deal could be reached.

The departure of the Pirates, including the $100,000 exit fee, left many questions about future of the CIA including Portland’s mayor Ethan Strimling.

The Pirates move to Springfield was paved by the Springfield Falcons, who were sold last month to the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes with the intent on relocating the team to Tucson, AZ for next season.

The AHL Board of Governors met on Tuesday to give conditional approval to the sale and relocation. The board also reviewed the sale of the Pirates and a vote on the sale and relocation is expected in the next two weeks.

The Pirates won its only Calder Cup championship during the team’s first season in Portland. The excitement of that season culminated with an estimated 15,000 people gathering in Portland for a ticker tape parade.

Church spent six seasons as a player for the Pirates (1996-2002) and was inducted into the Pirates’ Hall of Fame in 2012.

The new team would retain the Pirates name, and incorporate aspects of the original and current logo include mascot’s Salty Pete and Crackers.

The ECHL, formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League until it absorbed several teams from West Coast Hockey League in 2003, has 28 teams spanning from New Hampshire to Alaska and Florida to Idaho.

The league, which is one level below the AHL, plays a 72-game regular season schedule beginning in late October and ending in April. The playoffs last through the month of May.

Teams in the ECHL do not have a direct affiliation with NHL teams compared to the AHL where the Pirates were affiliated with the Florida Panthers. An ECHL franchise typically will receive five or six players from an NHL club, allowing for more control over its roster by signing unrestricted free agents.

It’s cheaper to operate an ECHL franchise compared to the AHL. Unlike the AHL, there is no affiliation fee in the ECHL, and they have limits on roster size and operate under a strict salary cap.

Travel is also compared to this past season after losing Manchester, Worcester, and Glens Falls as part of the new AHL Pacific Division. Last season, five AHL teams relocated from the northeast to California as western-based NHL clubs moved their affiliates closer to home.

Manchester recently completed its first season in the ECHL, while Worcester is slated begin in the fall of 2017.

Lower operating cost should help drive attendance as they plan to reduce ticket prices and include pricing options for children and seniors.

Before the puck can even drop in Oct. 2017. The new ownership group still need to apply for an expansion franchise or purchase an existing franchise that will be relocated to Portland. The group also need to reach a lease agreement with the trustees.

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