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."