In the Crease: Community at large needs to embrace its Fighting Spirit

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LEWISTON — The Fighting Spirit are relocating to Lewiston-Auburn.

Kind of fitting, right?

The area has long been known as a mill town on the rebound, a community with a rough-and-tumble past.

Now, we have a downtown community — and a community at large — attempting to reinvent itself and emerge from that reputation.

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We do, indeed, have plenty of fighting spirit.

This community has also been spoiled with hockey talent.

The Androscoggin Bank Colisee was the landing place for a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise after what amounted to a called bluff. The result of that move, the Lewiston Maineiacs franchise, graced the area with its presence for eight seasons, during which time many players who have developed into elite players in the National Hockey League skated within the confines of the 60-year-old arena — Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Jonathan Bernier, David Perron, Brad Marchand … the list is long and distinguished.

During the Maineiacs’ tenure, the cities’ hubris grew.

“This,” people said, “is what we deserve. This is great hockey.”

And it was — and is — great hockey. Too good. And it apparently came at too great a cost for a recession-stricken region with a general population that fears spending money on anything beyond a bean supper or a buffet.

Prior to the Lewiston Maineiacs, the best hockey one could hope to see on a regular basis was high school hockey.

And we accepted this. High school hockey was good hockey. From the time the Maine Nordiques left town in the late 1970s, it was the only game in town. And it was enough.

The Maineiacs whetted the area’s appetite for bigger, faster, stronger hockey.

When they left after the 2010-11 season, save for another QMJHL franchise, nothing was truly going to be good enough — at least, not right away. Colisee management brought in the Federal Hockey League for a handful of games to mixed reaction. They signed a deal with the Portland Junior Pirates to purchase ice for youth hockey, effectively creating a split between the rink and the already-established local youth hockey organizations.

And then, another gift.

The Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League — the top affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes — needed a place to crash for a while after getting into a spat with their arena in Portland. The Colisee was more than willing to accommodate.

Originally scheduled to be a 12-game sojourn to the North, the Pirates drew respectably well, averaging more than 2,400 fans in those 12 games before tailing off. But even the most optimistic hockey minds in the community knew the team would return to its big-city digs when construction on what is now known as the Cross Insurance Arena was complete.

Bowdoin College officials got together with the Maine Sports Commission and with Colisee management in a joint effort to host the NCAA Division III Frozen Four at the rink this past spring, as well.

Colisee management then thought its troubles were over this past summer. The Maine Timberwolves of the Northern States Hockey League agreed to make the Colisee their home base.

Faced with financial troubles from its foundation, it folded before holding a single tryout.

Deep breath.

Colisee officials recently appeared before the Lewiston City Council to request a change to its mortgage agreement, given that the building will operate this winter without a primary tenant. At the meeting, Jim Cain, president of Firland Management, which owns the Colisee, hinted that he was close to a deal to return junior hockey to Lewiston on a full-time basis.

This team, playing in what is now known as the North American 3 Eastern Hockey League (NA3EHL), is the fruit of that negotiation.

And Cain made a smart decision to lock the team in for five years. This will be the team’s fourth home in as many seasons, and owner/coach Rod Simmons’ fifth hometown in as many years.

He and his wife, Lisa, are looking for some stability. The league, led by commissioner Wayne Sheehan, is looking for the same.

So, too, is the Colisee, both in tenant and in ledger.

And so is the local hockey community, one that perhaps doesn’t deserve a third (fourth?) chance, but is being gifted exactly that.

Five years gives it that foundation.

Monday, everyone said all the right things. The right pieces are in place for this to work.

The Cains are happy at the Colisee. The Simmonses appear to be happy for the team. Sheehan appears to be happy for the NA3EHL.

It’s up to Lewiston-Auburn to (finally) be happy — and grateful — for what it has. The region continually asks for a fighting chance.

Now, can it embrace its Fighting Spirit?

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