After dispute, professional hockey returns to Portland

It’s official: professional hockey has returned to Portland, Maine.

Now 13 games into the season as of Nov. 2, the Portland Pirates have resumed playing at the recently renamed Cross Insurance Arena (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center) in Portland after playing last season at the Androscoggin Bank Colisée in Lewiston.

The team had moved away from its home in Portland of twenty years after a dispute over the terms of the team’s lease with the Civic Center, and headed for Lewiston for one season.
The Pirates play in the American Hockey League (AHL). Teams of the Pirates’ caliber are one step below the National Hockey League (NHL), the highest level hockey players can reach in the U.S. and Canada. AHL players often go on to play in the NHL, and most AHL teams are affiliated with a specific team in the NHL: the Pirates are affiliated with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Prior to the 2013-2014 season, the Pirates were already scheduled to play their first games in Lewiston while the Civic Center underwent a $34 million renovation. However, after negotiations between the team’s management and the board of trustees at the Civic Center failed to produce a lease that the two parties could agree on, the Pirates decided to make the Colisée in Lewiston their home for the entire season.

The dispute started in Apr. 2013. Initially the Pirates were offered a share of the profits made on food and beverages sold at their games for the first time in franchise history. While the Civic Center originally offered the Pirates 57.5 percent of concession sales, things changed when the state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations informed the stakeholders that the Pirates could not keep revenue from alcohol sold because the team does not own the property and therefore is not legally allowed to sell alcohol without its own liquor license.

Team managers requested that the team receive a larger percentage of food sales to make up the difference. In response, the Civic Center trustees agreed to bump the team’s share of food sales up to 65 percent, but according to former Pirates CEO Brian Petrovek the greater percentage of concessions was still not enough to make up for the money they could have earned from alcohol sales. The trustees, who were looking to break even, gave the team managers 48 hours to accept the terms of the lease, but the team did not agree. The decision was then made for the team to pack up and move its home base 40 miles north to Lewiston for the duration of the season.

Tension escalated when team management sued the Civic Center in 2013 to return to the original terms of the lease negotiated in April. Maine Senate President Justin Alfond even submitted emergency legislation that would change state law and allow the Pirates to keep revenue from alcohol sales without a liquor license. “While my bill will not fix every point of contention, it is my hope that this bill will [help] both parties come to an agreement and bring the Pirates back to where they belong—downtown Portland,” Alfond said in a press release in January.

Alfond’s bill to let large arenas share liquor sales with the teams they host passed, effectively ending the stalemate between the team and the Civic Center. The two parties returned to their original agreement of a 57.5 percent share in concession sales for the Pirates, allowing the team to return to Portland.

According to the Pirates’ Director of Media Relations and Social Media Manager Karoline Zacharer, the team settled on a new lease agreement that is good for the next five years.

“One of the biggest differences is the split in concessions. We now make 50 percent of the concessions sold in-game,” Zacharer said. “This does include alcohol. That’s the biggest difference….It was thanks to a change in the legislation that we were able to get a split in the revenue from alcohol sales.”

Back when Pirates CEO and Managing Owner Brian Petrovek officially announced the move to Lewiston at a press conference at the Colisée in September 2013, attendees cheered for the economic opportunities that hosting professional hockey games in Lewiston could bring. The team lowered ticket prices to encourage attendance, including ten-dollar tickets that could be purchased in advance. At the time, Petrovek said of Lewiston, “it’s home, not just a hotel room.”

The Pirates’ transition back to Portland has received considerable press, but less attention has been given to the city that adopted the team in 2013. Lewiston has been described as a die-hard hockey town, but according to Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau, the team’s departure didn’t have a huge impact on the economic fabric of the city.
“I would say that this really didn’t have…the kind of economic impact it would have if the team would have…originated in this community,” Nadeau said. AHL teams often move between cities or disappear for various reasons including financial difficulties and team politics.

Lewiston once had its own team in the early 2000s. The Lewiston Maineiacs was one of only two American teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Nadeau said, “It was fantastic…during the time that [the Maineiacs] were here, but they left in 2008 and the team was simply dissolved. The players that were on that team were just redistributed to other teams….Even though Lewiston…regretted seeing the team effectively dissolve its operations, that had more emotional impact on the community [than the Pirates’ departure].”

According to Nadeau, the Pirates probably made a bigger economic impact in Portland, where the Civic Center is located near many bars, restaurants and other local businesses. “To say that there was a big emotional impact or economic impact on the city, I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Nadeau said.

The team has been well-received back in Portland. “Attendance was really great at our opening night [vs. the Providence Bruins on Oct. 11],” Zacharer said. “It’s always fuller in the beginning of the season than it is moving forward. Our last home game was Friday night [Oct. 31]….Obviously there’s going to be a lot desired on attendance on Halloween, but things are looking pretty good.”

The team has also been involved in a number of community outreach events, including a golf tournament that raised $20,000 for Camp Sunshine, a retreat in Casco, Maine for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.
The Pirates are currently in fourth place in the AHL Eastern Conference, behind their two main rivals, the Providence Bruins and the Manchester Monarchs. The team has gone through a lot of change over the past couple of years, as have the arenas they have played in.

Nadeau, a native of Lewiston who grew up playing hockey at the Colisée, said, “It’s never been boring being associated with that building, either when I was a player or as Deputy City Administrator.”
The Pirates’ next home game is in Portland on Nov. 8.