A new, high-level junior hockey league appears likely to be the next full-time tenant of the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, and an announcement might come as soon as Monday.
A group of four Eastern Junior Hockey League teams recently announced the formation of a new league, the U.S. Premier Hockey League, to begin play in 2013, with a vision of operating in its first year as an eight-team league. The Portland Junior Pirates are in the mix to be one of the four teams in the second announced group, and would use the Lewiston facility as the team's home rink.
Neither the Junior Pirates nor Colisee ownership would formally confirm that information, but both entities did acknowledge a Monday announcement is imminent.
"That's the sort of thing we would hope to be able to bring to this market," Colisee owner Jim Cain said. "We have room for it, we have the facility for it, and the Pirates' organization certainly has the staff to manage the process."
"I think the (USPHL) is looking for an opportunity to have New England-based players play with and compete against the best," Portland Junior Pirates General Manager Brad Church said. "We're trying to create a league that's the best opportunity for kids to achieve their goals."
The Junior Pirates, the American Hockey League's Portland Pirates and the Colisee entered into an agreement in the spring in which the Junior Pirates gained exclusive minor and junior hockey rights to ice time at the Colisee. The AHL's Pirates are playing six home games at the Lewiston rink.
"I think the transition to the Junior Pirates' organization managing the youth hockey process has turned out the way we expected," Cain said. "We've got about 300 kids exposed to the program, and things have worked out well.
"Of course, with the six games with the American Hockey League Pirates, we've virtually sold out every game, which shows the popularity of that level of hockey in this market," Cain added.
But Cain has been steadfast in his desire to house a full-time junior hockey program at the rink, which for eight years was home to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Lewiston Maineiacs. The QMJHL purchased that team and folded it after the 2010-11 season, leaving the Colisee without a major tenant.
The USPHL, even in its infancy, has started to develop a structure, and is looking to break what it hopes will be new ground under the USA Hockey umbrella.
"Right now, what our program is trying to go for with USA Hockey, is a whole new classification," said Toby Harris, the general manager and head coach of the New Jersey Hitmen, one of the four founding teams of the USPHL.
"We want to be considered 'Tier I, Pay-to-Play,'" he said. "We're trying to see if we can put together some bylaws that will allow us to have that moniker. It's never been done before. It's never been approached before. To have Tier I status, the (United States Hockey League, based in the Midwest) has put in a ton of different rules to make it tough for anyone else to (be Tier I), based on seats in the arena, or this that and the other thing. As of right now, we're going to be insuring all of our players through USA Hockey, we're going to be following the ADM (American Development Model), we're going to pitch to them exactly what we plan on doing, our budgets, the whole nine, and we're going to see if we can create a new status in hockey within USA Hockey."
USA Hockey has yet to formally recognize the USPHL under its umbrella, though it is aware of its existence.
“I am sure it will be a topic at our junior council address at our winter meeting in January, " said David Fischer, the senior director of communications for USA Hockey. "After that meeting, we will have a little bit of a better idea about what the future may hold.”
Harris said he and members of the other three founding organizations — the South Shore Kings, the Middlesex Islanders and the Boston Junior Bruins — have opened the league up to general applications, and the response has been steady.
"We've gotten a lot of applications from different parts of the country, from Portland, from Buffalo, from Pittsburgh, from the Midwest, from Philadelphia, so right now, we're just sorting through the applications that have come in," Harris said.
"This league will be based on performance criteria," Harris added. "We want teams with good youth programs; we want that feeder system. We want teams that have a good track record of a) winning championships or b) college placement in the past."
Most important to Harris — and Church, should the Pirates join the USPHL — is the development of the organization's players, with the eventual hope that a handful of the team's players will play in college or as professionals, using USA Hockey's development model.
"With us, we care about developing players, we care about getting them ready for college and we care about moving them on," Harris said. "Our model is not based on selling beer, hot dogs and seats. Our model is based on the ADM model, it's about moving guys up the ladder, going from bantam major, to midget minor, to midget major, to junior A, to Division I and so on. We care more about the development of the player. We care more about the model than we do about putting fannies in the seats."
"I think the focus right now is about the product on the ice, creating a good developmental situation for the kids both on the ice and off, to open up doors for them," Church said. "Do we want people to come to the building to watch the players? Absolutely. But is there a ticket-sales plan or any of that stuff? No, not at this point."
As the owner of the facility in which the team would play, however, Cain is most certainly hoping that some of the organization's focus includes attendance.
"With the operating cost, you'd still need the fan base, for sure," Cain said. "But we have that here in Lewiston. This would be good hockey."