Maine Hockey Journal

Pirates leaving town with little warning

Without any warning the Portland Pirates are packing up and moving out of town after 23 seasons, leaving many city and county officials, local business owners and fans stunned as news broke late Wednesday afternoon.

The American Hockey League franchise is being sold to an outside group of investors with the intent of relocating the franchise to Springfield, Massachusetts for the 2016-2017 season.

“I have been informed that a broad-based local investor group has signed a letter of intent to purchase the Portland Pirates of the AHL,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said in a press release Wednesday.

Mitch Berkowitz, chairman of the board of trustees for the Cross Insurance Arena, said he didn’t have many details other than the team was moving to Springfield. The trustees have scheduled to meet in executive session Thursday morning to gather further details of the sale and discuss what’s next for the CIA.

The city of Springfield has been looking to replace the departure of the Springfield Falcons after owner Charlie Pompea signed a purchase agreement on April 19 to sell the AHL franchise to the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, who plan on relocating the franchise to Tucson, Arizona for next season.

“While we understand there are still some hurdles to overcome, we are encouraged by this news and hopeful that professional hockey will be back in Springfield this upcoming season,” said Sarno. “I look forward to sharing more information on this announcement in the very near future. I am very thankful to the broad-based local investor group for once again stepping up for our Springfield.”

The team shut down its Twitter and Facebook accounts shortly after the news broke, but within an hour its Facebook account was active. They issued a statement a short time later saying “a letter of intent has been signed with an outside buyer to purchase and relocate the AHL franchise to a new city. The details of the agreement were not disclosed, and final sale is pending approval of the AHL Board of Governors and the Florida Panthers.”

They added that all previously purchased season tickets for next season would be refunded.

Brad Church, the team’s chief operating officer, said via phone he did not have any details other than the team was being sold.

Ron Cain, who has been the majority owner of the Pirates since December 2013, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the sale.

The Pirates finished this past season 29th out of 30 teams in league attendance, averaging 3,363 fans per game which were up nearly 400 fans per game compared to the prior season when the team was last in league attendance. Springfield finish with the league’s worst attendance last season, and has not averaged over 4,000 fans since 2002-2003.

The Pirates existence began with much fanfare as the late Tom Ebright stood on the steps of Portland City Hall on March 27, 1993, and announced he was bringing hockey back to Portland after a one-year absence following the departure of the Maine Mariners to Providence, Rhode Island.

Ebright, who was an investment banker from Maryland and owner of the Baltimore Skipjacks, announced that he was bringing AHL hockey back to the Cumberland County Civic Center, now known as the Cross Insurance Arena, which had been an integral part of the community since the Maine Mariners first arrived in 1977.
The Pirates would win the AHL’s Calder Cup championship in their inaugural season and become a model franchise under Ebright’s guidance.

Unfortunately, Ebright’s health took a turn for the worse while awaiting heart transplant in Hershey, PA. He would pass away on July 11, 1997. His wife, Joyce, continued to own the team until she sold it a few months later to long-time business partner David Fisher and Shawnee Peak CEO Chet Horner.

Fisher and Horner owned the franchise until 2000 when they sold it to an investment group led by Lyman Bullard and Brian Petrovek. Both Bullard and Petrovek owned the franchise until 2013 when Cain acquired majority ownership.

During the 2013-14 season, the Pirates were forced to play at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston due to renovations to the Cross Insurance Arena, formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center, and a protracted lease dispute with county trustees. After taking control of the Pirates, Cain negotiated a five-year lease with the county.

The team recently completed the second year of the lease agreement, leaving three more years left on the current agreement. There is a buyout clause in the agreement allowing the team to break the remainder of the lease for $100,000.

The Pirates, who just complete the first year of a four-year affiliation agreement with the Florida Panthers, have had five affiliations over their history in Portland. The Washington Capitals were affiliated with the Pirates for 13 seasons until leaving for Hershey, PA in 2005. The Capitals’ affiliation was replaced by Anaheim Ducks moved its prospects to Portland where they made two Eastern Conference Final appearances in three years. The Buffalo Sabres arrived in 2008 after the Ducks left for Des Moines, Iowa until 2011 when the Arizona Coyotes arrived. The Coyotes and Pirates would be affiliated for four seasons.

The Panthers were very pleased being in Portland after the team went 41-27-6-2 during the regular season. They were eliminated in five games, 3-2, by the Hershey Bears in the best-of-five Atlantic Division semifinal.

The Panthers issued a statement from Executive Chairman Peter Luukko Wednesday evening on Pirates move to Springfield.

“I was informed by Portland CEO Ron Cain today that he has signed a letter of intent to sell the Pirates pending league approval,” Luukko said in a written statement. “We will be in contact with the American Hockey League regarding the sale process. In the meantime, Florida will begin exploring all our options to put our players in the very best developmental situation. We have enjoyed the city of Portland, the venue, and the incredible fan support.”

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