In the Crease: A reprieve for junior hockey … maybe

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If you believe the Lewiston Maineiacs, they were never going anywhere in the first place.

If you believe the rumors still floating around in cyberspace, the will-they-or-won’t-they-relocate saga isn’t yet over.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Credible reports surfaced late this past weekend, and have been widely circulated in the 48 hours since, that the issue of the Lewiston Maineiacs’ potential relocation to Summerside, Prince Edward Island is dead.

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Maineiacs’ officials, and particularly PEI-native Bill Schurman, the team’s president and governor, will tell you that it was never alive.

“Nothing has changed,” Schurman reiterated Sunday night. “We continue to respond the same to twits and tweets. Until we will not call Lewiston home, which we don’t see that happening, we will do our business as usual and let all of the rumors and all of the tweeters try and figure out what’s going on. We’ve promised … the community, our staff and our volunteers and our partners we would tell them directly. Until such time, it’s all just rumors.”

But too many people with working brain cells know that isn’t entirely true.

Schurman isn’t lying. He was careful to choose words such as “yet,” “until such time,” and “if and when.”

No one from the organization — Schurman, majority owner Mark Just or anyone else — ever came out and said publicly, “We’re going to play hockey in Lewiston in 2011-12.”

Sure, they’ve alluded to it, announcing ticket packages, referring to “next year” during announcements at games and the like.

But people in Maine — and particularly in the greater Lewiston/Auburn area — are fickle. They’re also careful with their money. They want to know that, should they commit to next season, that there is definitely a “next season” to which they are committing.

And the common belief — correct in assumption or not — is that where there is smoke, there is fire regarding relocation.

Similar to the Boisbriand debacle, there’s been a smoldering flame under a shroud of denial.

There were — and are — just too many ties, links, binds, bonds and backroom handshakes between the people who could have made a move like this happen.

This time around, though, the Maineiacs and Just were smarter (some might say calculated) about it. They didn’t announce they were leaving, file official papers with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League requesting relocation and essentially burn the Longley Bridge down on their way out of town, only to find out that they’d overlooked a pesky proximity rule.

At no time this year did the Maineiacs file a formal request to relocate. The league’s official deadline (and a handful of other, truer deadlines) have all passed.

“From my understanding, there was never an official demand to relocate,” PEI Rocket president Serge Savard Jr. told the Chronicle-Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We were never asked — the governors or the members — to vote on anything. … All I’ve heard is they’re doing the (2011-12) schedule (Monday) for the league with all the markets in place.”

That the team has hemorrhaged money the past three seasons is no secret. The team’s first failed attempt to relocate is chief among the reasons for the downturn. Add in an publicly unpopular coaching hire, a pair of terrible seasons on the ice, a turbulent front office situation and ongoing differences with the building it calls home, and the recipe existed (exists?) for franchise implosion.

Androscoggin Bank Colisee owner Jim Cain said Monday that, unless he hears otherwise, he’s planning on the Maineiacs’ training camp opening as usual in mid- to late-August.

“As it stands at the moment, I have a lease with the team,” Cain said Monday. “Until I don’t have a lease with the team, I have to behave like I normally would under the terms of the lease. I’m planning and expecting the team to show up for training camp, rent ice under normal conditions. I hope that’s what happens.”

So less than three weeks before the QMJHL’s annual meetings and entry draft in Victoriaville, here the Maineiacs are.

The hockey operations side is ready to tinker with the squad to make it championship-ready in 2011-12. That job is as easy (or hard) as it’s ever been, and had to be taken care of whether the team was based in Lewiston, Summerside, Sherbrooke or Chibougamou.

On the business end, the team has received, according to Schurman, upward of 200 requests for early season ticket packages for “loyal,” former ticket-holders at a sizable discount.

Tuesday, the summer pricing option for season tickets goes into effect. Available through June and July, the price is $25 more than the “loyalty” price, and still well below last season’s prices.

They’ve asked fans’ opinions about things to change, ordered new jerseys with new designs for next season and asked that equipment and stick orders be placed.

The Colisee’s staff, meanwhile, continues to field questions surrounding the sale of tickets.

“I think there’s a lot of people in the local marketplace who come in and want to know what’s happening,” Cain said. “A level of certainty would certainly help support a membership drive for season ticket-holders.”

This weekend’s leak of information — some on Twitter and other publications across Canada have reported an informal straw poll of influential QMJHL personnel showed underwhelming support for a move to Summerside — has essentially declared the move “dead.”

“Since day one … it was clear for me it was not in the Q’s interest to have two teams so close. It’s business as usual,” Savard told the Guardian newspaper of Charlottetown in response to the reports.

And dead it likely is.

For now.

Given all of the things that Just has apparently done incorrectly — and things that have happened incorrectly under his watch and on his behalf — he is ultimately the reason the people in Central Maine have QMJHL hockey to pine over in the first place.

As a businessman, there is little doubt that he is looking out for his personal welfare, the stability of his finances and the stability of the franchise, if that is even a possibility. Losing money even when the team was winning, it’s understandable that Just had (has?) the itch to relocate the team to what he perceives to be greener pastures.

Losing as much money as he has — and that actual, total number may never be known — Just has to worry about his own financial well-being, and that of his family.

“Mark and (minority owner) Wendell (Young) have sunk a tremendous amount of money into this team,” fellow minority owner Paul Spellman said. “Nobody can be expected to do that forever. The financial situation may not be so bleak if there were to be, for instance, a group comprised at least in part of local individuals who could step to the plate financially as well as having some type of involvement in the day-to-day operation of the franchise.”

With the shroud of financial uncertainty and instability continuously hanging over the Maineiacs, the rumors will persist.

Until the gate receipts show progress. Or until there is an ownership change.

Some of those rumors may be true. Some may not be.

But what appears to be true, at least in the moment, is that beginning in August, one of the early-projected top three teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 2011-12 season will call Lewiston home.

Perhaps it will only be for one more season. Perhaps more.

Next season may be one more chance — or one last chance — to consistently watch the highest level of hockey to call Lewiston home in 30 years.

If that alone isn’t enough to stir up interest in a supposed “hockey community,” perhaps the ownership’s decision to look elsewhere is truly justified.

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