QMJHL buys Maineiacs, dissolves team

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal Chad Denny, one of the original three Maineiacs still on the team, hoists the President's Cup above his head after the team was vitorious over Val D'Or 2-0 Wednesday.

The Lewiston Maineiacs are no more.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's owners met Tuesday via conference call on the eve of the league's annual meetings and draft and approved the sale of the club to the league itself, ending the franchise's existence.

"This is very hard, very hard for me right now," former Maineiacs' majority owner Mark Just said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's a very bittersweet evening for me. There's a relief in all of this, in all honesty. There are debts that I have to pay and we didn't have money to pay the things anymore. I'd just depleted everything I had ... it was my only choice."

According to a news release from the league, the QMJHL plans to mothball the franchise, dissolve the team and hold a dispersal draft for all of the players on the team's 50-man roster, including many considered to be top players in the QMJHL.

"The work we've put in the last three years, and people across the league agreed, what a great team we had," Just said. "I tried to do everything I could to prevent this from happening. But we also had a great team in the playoffs this year, and we drew no one. The reality of it set in."

The league also approved Tuesday an expansion bid from a group out of Sherbrooke — led by former NHL goaltender Jocelyn Thibeault — to begin operating a team out of that city for the 2012-13 season. The Maineiacs moved to Lewiston from Sherbrooke following the 2002-03 season.

Fans of the team who had already purchased season tickets for next season can expect full refunds, according to the team. Details on those arrangements are expected in the coming days.

Just was originally a minority owner, along with former NHL goalie Wendell Young of the Halifax Mooseheads. He became majority owner of the Sherbrooke Castors in 1998 and relocated the franchise to Lewiston five years later.

"I was the one who kept saying, 'We'll try to make it work, we'll try to make it work, we'll try to make it work,'" Just said. "But I think I knew, deep down, the night we raised the banners after winning the President's Cup, when we had 2,500 people in the building for the opening game next year. I knew that we weren't ever going to be successful in Lewiston, that it wasn't going to happen."

Reaction from others in the organization was somber Tuesday night as word filtered through the ranks.

“This is indeed a very sad day for the great fans and supporters of the Lewiston Maineiacs," Maineiacs' minority owner Paul Spellman said late Tuesday. "It’s been a great run and this team has been a very big part of a lot of people’s lives. In less than eight years, the organization established a rich heritage, a much shorter period of time than most organizations in any sport, or at any level, establish.”

Players also weighed in, expressing sadness.

"Thanks to all the beauts who I played with this year, easily my favorite year of junior," Maineiacs' captain Cameron Critchlow wrote in a Facebook update. "Heartbreaking to see it end like this when we were going to win it all. I will miss all the boys and have memories of this year throughout my whole life, and thank you to all of the fans who made my time in Lewiston the very best all of your support, this is tough, going to miss all my boys!"

"It's really disappointing," defenseman Sam Carrier said. "We had a team to go all the way next year and a great bunch of guys. We had hope we could stay together until the last minute."

The end of the franchise in Lewiston marks the end of a turbulent, two-year stretch during which one relocation attempt failed and another failed to materialize, despite reports that such a move was imminent. The team, which won the 2007 President's Cup as the league's champion, fell into disarray less than two years later, when rumors of a move to Boisbriand, Quebec, surfaced. Attendance the following season plummeted and failed to recover as the Maineiacs finished 16th of 18 teams in two consecutive campaigns.

"I figured the first year would be difficult," Just said, "but this year was a very big disappointment to me. One of the reasons we didn't say anything, and we kept trying, I was hoping people couldn't say, 'Well, this is a terrible team; why would I support it?' This was a wonderful team we had on the ice. They were exciting and young and worked hard, and to have 1,100 people in the building against the No. 1 team in the Canadian Hockey League, there was just no way."

In summer 2010, Just hired Bill Schurman as the team's managing consultant and governor (and eventually, team president), and welcomed into the fold a third minority shareholder, Spellman. Young, the Chicago Wolves' GM and a Stanley Cup-winning goalie, remained the team's other minority owner.

Schurman vowed, in his initial news conference in Lewiston, to "do everything in (his) power to make the team work (in Lewiston)."

Spellman was happy to be on board and hoped to breathe some fresh air into the franchise and perhaps aid in its local presence.

But after an initial splash, and some positive attention for assisting in the cleanup of a damaged local cemetery, the problems again manifested themselves in the team's front office. Operating on a shoestring budget, the Maineiacs were again linked via rumor to relocation possibilities, this time to Schurman's hometown of Summerside, Prince Edward Island. Dogged by those rumors, the box office continued to suffer and sponsors started to dissipate, a vicious circle that left the Maineiacs strapped for cash.

The team never filed for relocation, but the damage was done.

Sunday, days after reports surfaced that the team was going to fold, the Maineiacs released a statement saying Just was "exploring all of his options."

"I have been trying to do everything that I possibly can to keep the team intact," Just said in that news release. "All and every option is on the table, including selling to local investors or others, looking at relocation options, and/or seeking additional sources of funding within the state of Maine."

"Mark and I had a lengthy conversation Sunday night and we talked again (Tuesday)," Spellman said. "He is devastated that the team he built will not be intact for a title run next season and that the players have to be dispersed via a draft. He subsidized the fans' hockey entertainment in Lewiston year after year, and that decision could no longer be made on emotion. Eventually, the financial reality trumps one’s good intentions. Believe me, the events of the past few days have taken a toll on him physically, as well as emotionally. I want to personally thank everyone — fans, sponsors and volunteers — that have supported us all these years.”

Despite that last-ditch plea, Just went ahead with the sale of the team to the league, ending the team's eight-year existence days before its ninth QMJHL draft and barely three months before the beginning of its ninth competitive season.

"I said in October, I sat at the rink with the commissioner of the league sitting next to me, and I said back then that we had to do better," Just said. "I can't afford putting monies into something ... I worked for 40 years and I put everything that I had into this team. There comes a time where, when you have an investment, that investment has to at least break even. That was never a reality here."

jpelletier@sunjournal.com

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Comments

 's picture

Nickel and Dime

Danny Breton, Lewiston/Auburn are Nickel and Dime towns. I don't care what you give or bring to these towns, its always the same old song. It cost to much,cry cry cry, play the violin, cry me a river. You don't support a team with the longest travel distances that produce higher operating expenses, with an average of less that 2000 fans in the building. I was astonished to see only 1700 attending a match between the Maineiacs and the top seeded St. John in the playoffs. But then, this is L/A the Nickel and Dime cities, its what we do.

ROGER COUTURIER's picture

Replacement for the MAINEiacs

I don't think there is a US league that can showcase the talent we were shown by the Q. So many players we had the opportunity to watch ended up in the AHL & the NHL. Hopefully I am proven wrong. Most highly sought US talent end up in College D1.

 's picture

From what the USHL says they

From what the USHL says they have 158 NHL Active Alumni, it's possible that they could come to Lewiston as they are talking about trying to expand.

http://www.ushl.com/

Jason Theriault's picture

Lets be realisitic

Val-d'Or, PEI, Rouyn-Noranda, Baie-Comeau and Acadie-Bathurst all drew less attendance than Lewiston last year. So it is possible to support a team on less attendance. And before they tried to move, they were pulling around 2,500 average per game. Mark Just said they needed 3,000, which around 82% capacity. That's alot to ask.

I have a personal grudge against Just, but I didn't want the team to fail. I just don't know if the this was a good fit. I think the area could support a team, and maybe we would be hitting the 3K mark by now if Just didn't try and move the team, turning everyone off.

But the past is the past. It's sad that the team is gone, but hopefully the next team can learn from the Maineiacs mistakes and build a solid relationship with the community.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

L/A: Where Hopes and Dreams Come to Die

I think Roger C. sums things up very well. Historically, the owner and public (lack of) relations team takes half the blame, with our apathetic, disenfranchised (pun not intended) community taking the other half. Suckers, Dan? Maybe if you understood what it was like to root for something and have a vicarious sense of being part of a (winning) team, you might not insult the fans, me, and my kids. Michael Chaput knew my son's name. My 6-year-old daughter's favorite player was Ian Saab, and the players thought it was cute that a little girl liked the team's enforcer over other flashier players. The players were so accessible and kind to the kids, and yet they are just kids themselves, and darn good ones at that. The players would fist-bump the awaiting children as they came onto the ice for each period. Lewy and Kollide were plain-old fun. The sense of community -- that we were all there together in this town where there ain't a whole lot to root for outside of one's own family, friends, and schools -- will be sorely missed by my family and many others. Cantakerous curmudgeons can poo-poo the MAINEiacs and Just and Schurman and whomever, but it doesn't change the fact that if more people went to the games, this never would've happened. Sports are sports, and business is business. Too bad business can be so friggin messy. Best of luck to the boys and coaches. You guys are not to blame.

KRIS KUCERA's picture

One, and only one, response.

Dan, I read your full comment. I am not out to attack you, unlike the entire TEA Party and other utopian anarchists. However, facts are stubborn things: Just owned the team. I like the team. I had to ulteriorly root for Just -- who's lost money 8 of 8 years (while all the other Q team's get Canadian government subsidies) -- to genuinely root for the team. Not because I'm a deluded fan of Just; I'm a dedicated fan of the TEAM, to wit, the players. You can covet your pound of Just's flesh, Dan et al., but you can't have it without the blood (sweat and tears) of the players -- and, vicariously, their fans. (Note: the fans' tears are real.)

ROGER COUTURIER's picture

Sad day for hockey in L/A

As a season ticket holder from day one this is how I see it unfold. There is no question that Mark Just made a series of deadly mistakes in the operation of the team here. From poor management choices from the start to the poor choice in naming a successor to Clem Jodoin which turned off player who chose to play elsewhere and then the lack of advance homework in the announced move to Boisbriand. By then it was too late to try of make amends in an effort to revitialize support for the team. Marketing has been less than stellar and then to blame the local fans for not going to the games.

Now that I have pointed out Mark Just's misgivings, how about all those so-called "die hard hockey fans" who were the biggest critic yet never attended a game or would only attend if they were offered a free ticket. Always too expensive unless it was free. Let's face it, the blame for failure should be shouldered not only by the owner but also by all those locals who never offered an ounce of support. I will greatly miss this level of hockey and the opportunity to see future NHL stars play in my community.

 's picture

it's too bad really. most of

it's too bad really. most of my co workers were true fans, even following them to away games on their weekends off and planned vacations around said games. from what i understand, the mainiacs really made it a family friendly environment, and the tickets were fairly low priced. my co workers said that it was cheaper to go watch a game with their kids then to take them to to movies, more fun too because they could be loud. the owners had tried everything, even giving away FREE TICKETS, in order to try to attract a returning audience. this really is a tremendous loss to the city, i wish the players well on their new teams, and hope that the boneheads out there can come up with something else for families to enjoy, since we have so few parades and outdoor festivals anymore.

 's picture

suckers???

Lou and Dan,

Clearly you have no clue what you are talking about and aren't true hockey fans.

I'm personnally embarrassed by your comments.
You should be too.

Go Bruins.

 's picture

Tron

I'd gladly be "strung along", as you put it, for another season next year. This was the most exciting hockey i've ever seen in my life, and next year was setting up to be a Championship season. The difference between me and you is that I actually went to the games, supported the team and our Community, knew the players, coaches, management, staff and billets personally, met great friends I wouldn't have met otherwise and enjoyed watching the best 15-20 year old hockey players in the world. Where the basis for your comments come from, i'm not sure.

Jason Theriault's picture

Don't want to say much

Obviously, I'm biased. I'm Roger Theriault's nephew. I am sad that Lewiston/Auburn is losing something that so many enjoyed and that so many worked hard on providing.

That said, look at the attendance numbers on the QMJHL's website. You can look at historical data too. Lewiston was never last in attendance, it was usually middle of the pack. So I find it hard to believe that those numbers couldn't support the team.

It's a sad day for Lewiston Auburn hockey.

LUCIEN DOUCET, JR.'s picture

Glad

I am so glad that we won't have to listen, anymore, to the owners whining about leaving. Maybe we can now get a team here, that wants to be here.

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