LEWISTON — Is Lewiston-Auburn big enough for two junior hockey teams?
Jim Cain, owner of the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston and the team that calls it home, the L/A Nordiques, thinks so.
But don’t ask him to try the model the newly formed Twin City Thunder is using.
“(The second team) doesn’t have a direct impact on us at all,” Cain said. “It’s another Tier III team, and the guys are pumping it up a bit — naturally so — to say it might go to Tier II. But it’s Tier II in equivalence to the USA Hockey model. And you have to remember, their league operates outside of USA Hockey, which to me is troublesome.”
The Thunder, owned jointly by Maine Moose owner Ben Gray, a St. Dominic Academy alumnus, and Dan Hodge, announced recently the team will play beginning next season at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn in the United States Premier Hockey League’s Premier division. Like the NA3HL in which the Nordiques play, it’s Tier III hockey.
The USPHL has tried a couple of times to operate under the USA Hockey umbrella, and has expressed interest in trying to evolve into a league with a Tier I program, but has been denied. The only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier I league in the United States is the USHL, which is based primarily in the Midwest.
“This is the second time (the USPHL) has moved outside of USA Hockey, and the first time, they went back in,” Cain said. “I’m not really worried in the long term. I’ve been in and around the North American League for a long, long time, and it’s all about endurance. I like the whole idea of playing within USA Hockey, always. Governance is governance, and that sets the stage for the whole thing. I think if we stay with what we have, we’ll do well. We have good coaching, good recruitment, and we can put something on the ice that people will enjoy.”
More important for long-term sustainability for both teams is the question of financial viability, from the consumer level to the advertising level. It’s something with which Firland Management, Cain’s company, has battled intermittently since taking over the Colisee from the city of Lewiston in 2008, when the building was the home of the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Maineiacs left town after the 2010-11 hockey season. Even then, Cain said, the building wasn’t turning a profit.
“We’ve only been able to make this a successful financial operating model for two years out of the eight, and those have been the past two years,” Cain said. “I think because of our desire to continue, you will always see us looking at and talking to business partners for opportunities. That’s just the way it is. It’s the nature of the business we’re in.”
Despite that recent profit, Firland is two payments behind on its taxes. According to Heather Hunter, the city’s finance director, the company owes $40,093.69 in taxes and accumulated interest for payments due in March 2017 and September 2017. Additionally, the city has placed a lien on the property in the amount of $16,858.90, which matures in December 2018. The next property tax payment of $22,880.15 is due on March 15, 2018.
Hunter said her office has been working with Firland, and “the city is in continual communication with their management team to discuss payment arrangements. Their management team anticipates satisfying the (fiscal year) 2017 amount owed prior to the lien maturing.”
“Since we’ve been here, we’ve infused hundreds of thousands of dollars of our own capital into the building to get us to where we are today,” Cain said. “The city knows that, too, and there’s no doubt we’re invested in this building, and in this community. I own a house here, my son is building a house here … this is where we are. This is an issue that will be resolved.”
By comparison, Norway Savings Bank Arena, where the Thunder will play, pays no taxes because it is operated by the city of Auburn. But under the agreement with landowner George Schott signed when the building was conceived, the city refunds Schott about $150,000 per year in taxes through tax-increment financing in return for leasing the space. Because of that TIF, in the most recent fiscal year the city paid $506,484 to lease the arena from Schott.
And it’s not turning a profit, either.
As of April 30, 2017, NSBA was operating at a fiscal year loss of $108,947. Sponsorship dollars only missed their mark for NSBA by $609, though. The majority of the Auburn rink’s deficit resulted from a near-$40,000 shortfall in rental income, and a $31,000 deficit in a line item of “programs.” The arrival of the Thunder will provide an annual boost in revenue at NSBA in rental fees and, city leaders hope, concessions sales. To that end, at the same city council meeting which cleared the way for the Thunder to play at NSBA, the council also approved a contract with a local businessman to operate the concessions at the rink as a third party, which should stem or even eliminate those losses.
At the Colisee, the addition of the Nordiques’ program (previously the Fighting Spirit) has helped lead it to its relative, self-described stability. But that relationship has become tenuous in the past couple of months.
At the end of last season, L/A Fighting Spirit owner and head coach Rod Simmons entered into an agreement to sell the franchise to Cain for an undisclosed amount of money.
“Before I left, the Cains asked me if I’d be interested in leaving the team there,” Simmons said from his home in New York. “The community, everyone was wonderful to my family, and Lisa before she passed away, and I really thought that she would want me to leave it there.”
The terms, according to both parties, were for four payments over two years. According to Simmons, the first payment was due in August, which Cain met, and the second in October, which Simmons said he didn’t get.
“Between the league, the Cains and I, we came up with an agreement,” Simmons said. “As of right now, we’ve had to notify the league that things aren’t going well payment-wise. We’re certainly hopeful that it can be rectified, but I’m not really sure where we’re at right now.
“I’ve put in 31 years,” Simmons added. “That’s enough for me. I just want this to be resolved.
Cain said this week that everything is all square.
“It’s to the best of our knowledge that everything is rectified,” Cain said.
With that behind him, Cain added, it’s full steam ahead, for the rink and for the team.
“The people of Lewiston and Auburn like to come to these games that are highly competitive,” Cain said. “It’s good stuff. We have five or six kids now that are going to announce in the next three weeks or so their Division III acceptance, and that’s a big deal.
“We know how important this building — and hockey — is to this community,” Cain added. “We’re happy here and we’re not going anywhere.”
Androscoggin Bank Colisee owner Jim Cain stands inside the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in this 2014 Sun Journal file photo. (Sun Journal file photo)
Jim Cain president of Firland Management and owner of the Androscoggin Colisee answers questions in Lewiston during a press conference in 2012. (Sun Journal file photo)
L/A Fighting Spirit’s coach Rod Simmons watches the action on the ice during a 2016 game at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston. (Sun Journal file photo)