LEWISTON — After weeks of legal wrangling, the Portland Pirates and Cumberland County Civic Center have been unable to resolve their financial differences.
After days of speculation, the American Hockey League team made official Thursday what many had surmised: The team will play its entire 38-game home schedule, and any possible playoff games, in Lewiston.
"This is our home now," Pirates' CEO and managing owner Brian Petrovek said. "We haven't been given the privilege or the right we think we'd negotiated to play in Portland, so this is home. And we have to look at it that way. We have a home in Saco, and we have a home in Lewiston, and that's it. We have to figure out how to make this home work. And it's home, not just a hotel room."
The move comes after the team and the Cumberland County Civic Center, its home for the past 20 seasons, failed to reach an agreement on a new lease after theirs expired at the end of last season. The Pirates have since sued the Civic Center, saying the sides reached an agreement last April from which the trustees have since backed down.
"We made a deal in April, and it didn't require anyone else's voice or otherwise to make it happen," Petrovek said. "I don't consider the negotiations that took place prior to April contentious. We were trying to do business, we were trying to find sustainable business models, and we thought we did that. We were disappointed with the outcome, but we're moving on.
"It's time to turn the corner, full throttle and we're not looking back," Petrovek added. "We have to get energy, and we have to get results, and we have a lot of work to do."
"I wasn't surprised by the Pirates announcing they would be playing in Lewiston," Neal Pratt, chairman of the Cumberland County Civic Center Board of Trustees, said Thursday night.
"We drew the line, and they chose to leave, which was their right," Pratt said. "Unfortunately, they chose to make some unfortunate comments blaming everything on the trustees."
The Pirates were already scheduled to play 13 games at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee while the Portland facility undergoes extensive renovations approved by voters in 2011, major upgrades that were in part designed to accommodate the hockey team as well as other large events and concerts.
Now, all 38 of the team's home games will be in Lewiston, a move that has ruffled some feathers among the team's season ticket holders.
"We've heard from some, and the reactions have been somewhat predictable," Petrovek said. "In terms of, 'We're with you, we're willing to take on more of a commitment to come up here.' Others have taken a different approach, and we expected that. It's something we're going to have to deal with, and we hope over time we'll change their tune."
The mood at the Pirates' formal announcement Thursday at the Colisee's Baxter Lounge, which was open to the public, was decidedly more upbeat. When Petrovek reached the point in his prepared statement that officially announced the move, the room erupted in cheers.
"This is going to really help the economy around here," Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said. "This is going to bring people here, and hopefully they're going to explore our city when they get here, and help the businesses downtown. This is a very good thing for the area."
"We feel welcome, and we appreciate that," Petrovek said. "We've got to earn your respect, and we've got to earn your support, and we've got some work to do in that regard, but we're not going to do that anywhere else right now. We'll be reaching out to everyone here for their help, their support. We're going to do our part to put into this arena a world-class product."
Petrovek said that while this agreement may appear to be a temporary solution, he also intimated that under the right circumstance, the Pirates would actually consider something more long-term.
"It's up to this community to determine the approach that we take," Petrovek said. "We're going to do everything on our end to make this a success, and we'll let the situation determine itself. We have a focus on these 38 games, and we have a lot to do in a very short time. The framework is already in place for 13 games. We're looking both at the short-term, and long-term, and we're hoping the market embraces us, and that will determine our future."
The Cumberland County Civic Center will be unable to recruit another American Hockey League team as long as the Pirates remain within the boundaries of their original 50-mile geographic footprint, which they have done in moving to Lewiston.
"They've played games there in the past," said Jason Chaimovitch, the AHL's vice president for communications. "The facility meets our needs as a league, and it's within their territory, so there are no issues there."
The Civic Center, meanwhile, is intent on pursuing other possible tenants.
"They made their decision and now we have to move on," Pratt said. "There are a lot of hockey teams out there, and other sports. This is a desirable city to play in for many reasons. And the renovations, they weren't just for the Pirates, but were designed for a multipurpose arena. I think hockey is a good thing, but the Pirates are not the only game in town."
Transferring the dates from the Civic Center in Portland to the Colisee was relatively easy, all things considered. Only four of the team's originally-scheduled 38 games were conflicts with existing Colisee events. That required the team to redo its home schedule slightly, and changed the date of its home opener, which is now Wednesday, Oct. 9.
One of the reasons for the conflicts is the NCAA Division III men's hockey National Championship, which is slated for the Colisee in March. Initially, it caused the Colisee and General Manager Mike Cain, no relation to Ron, some concern, but as the Pirates worked out their schedule, the dates no longer overlapped.
"They were asking us if we would be able to remove the ice in time," Mike Cain said. "That's going to be a busy one."
The Pirates originally had home dates scheduled for March 21 and 22 in Portland. With the Colisee hosting the hockey tourney that week, those dates had to change.
"Thursday the 20th of March is a closed-to-the-public practice day," Mike Cain said. "Friday is the two semifinals and Saturday the 22nd is the final."
Per NCAA regulations, all advertising on the rink boards and in the lower bowl of the arena must be removed, meaning the days before the NCAA arrives will be busy for the Colisee staff.
"We'll shave the ice down to the logos and remove those," Mike Cain said. "Paint over the top of everything. All the signage has to come down. Both ice surfacers need to be rewrapped, too."
The Pirates' next home game after that weekend is Wednesday, March 26, leaving the crew little time to turn the rink around again.
"It's a lot of work," Mike Cain said. "But we'll have it done."
Perhaps most attractive to the Pirates' fan base will be the ticket prices in Lewiston.
"We're reducing the pricing here," Petrovek said. "We're sensitive to the economy, we are really focused on getting critical mass in here to create home-ice advantage. The value proposition we're presenting this community is second to none.
"We refer to it internally, the new model, as the 10-dollar ticket," Petrovek continued. "We have some inventory that's a little bit more, and there'll be an increase on day-of-game for those who don't take advantage of the advance ticket price, but we look at our product portfolio, and our pricing, and we call it a 10-dollar ticket."
"The way they're pricing those tickets, I think that was one of the big things before," Macdonald said. "So now, the fan base, you're going to be able to bring your family, like the Sea Dogs in Portland. You look at the tickets there, everybody goes there, and you always see a lot of kids and families, which is great. I just think this is a big win for the city."