Junior hockey team to call Auburn home

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AUBURN — The Lewiston-Auburn area is getting a second junior hockey team.

Monday night, the Auburn City Council gave its unanimous approval to Maine Hockey Management Group LLC to finalize a lease agreement with a yet-to-be-named league to operate a team out of the Norway Savings Bank Arena beginning next season, in August 2018.

“We’re very excited about this opportunity for the city, and the team, as well,” Auburn City Manager Peter Crichton said. “This will be beneficial to all of us in Auburn and the surrounding area.”

Details on the team itself and the league in which the team will play were scarce Monday night, but one of the new team’s owners — St. Dominic Academy alumnus Ben Gray — was on hand for the official vote, alongside some of the team’s partners.

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“We looked at several facilities while we were trying to figure out which would best suit us,” Gray said. “We chose Auburn. It’s the best fit for us, and we think for the community. It’s a brand new facility, in a good community, it’s a great hockey market, all of the above.”

“This really showcases what we have here,” arena general manager Jason Paquin said. “We have a phenomenal facility, we have a great community around us, and this is kind of acting as a cherry on top. We’re going to be having teams from all over come in, visit the area, spend some time here, and really just see what the city has to offer.”

Among Gray’s partners is Dan Hodge, a former professional player in his own right whose father and brother — Ken Sr. and Ken Jr. — skated for the Boston Bruins. Dan skated for the Providence Bruins, as well as for teams in the IHL and ECHL through 2006. Dan Hodge has also coached in the ECHL with Tulsa, and is the owner of the Cape Cod Islanders of the NA3HL, the league in which the L/A Nordiques play.

City officials had few questions for the group, asking only about revenue, the term of the lease, and whether the team’s presence would displace any existing programs.

Assistant City Manager Denise Clavette said under the contract, the team will pay $45,000 per year for practice and game ice the first two years, and $50,000 in the third year. The city will also retain $1 from each ticket sold and retain ticket-selling duties. The rest of the ticket sales revenue will go to the team. She also said the team’s initial contract will run three years, but after the first year, the team will have an option to extend it for another two, to five total.

Councilor David Colby Young was concerned about the possible displacement of youth and high school programs who also call NSBA home, but Clavette and Paquin allayed those fears, citing the facility’s 10 locker rooms and otherwise ample space.

Gray reiterated, also, that he and the new team have no intention of taking anything over.

“This is all on its own,” Gray said. “We’re trying to build this as Maine’s premier junior hockey program, so there’s no youth aspect to it whatsoever. We’re not trying to come in and say, ‘This is how things are run.'”

Gray also owns and operates the Maine Moose program out of the Bank of Maine Ice Vault in Hallowell. He said this is a completely separate venture, and that there will be no merging of the two programs.

“That’s not going to change,” Gray said. “This is a separate venture with Dan Hodge, and it’s completely separate, no affiliation.”

Gray offered few details about the league, the team, or a possible name, saying only that they will hold a news conference Friday at NSBA to make an announcement.

“You’re going to have 17- to 20-year-olds, the best of the best across the country,” Gray said. “Our goal is to give Maine kids opportunities, but you’re going to see kids from Michigan, Minnesota, out west, Canada, Europe.”

According to the Maine Hockey Management Group LLC page on Facebook, the team will be part of a league with 86 active alumni currently playing in college hockey’s Hockey East alone, and 64 more in Atlantic Hockey in the NCAA.

Those divisions include schools such as Maine, New Hampshire, Boston College, Boston University, Quinnipiac Univeristy and Northeastern University.

Though Gray wouldn’t say anything about a mascot or logo, another post on the Facebook page appears to show a piece of a logo with a green, black and white color scheme. The group’s Facebook profile photo is only the words, “Big announcement coming soon,” which would coincide with Friday’s news conference.

With the council’s full backing — the measure passed 7-0 — Gray thinks the area’s fans will turn out for the new team.

“We know the market can support a high-level team,” Gray said. “It’s something that we’ve talked about for years, but the problem was getting into the high-caliber league. Prior, we weren’t allowed into the league. It was a matter of being patient and ensuring that we’re in the proper league.”

And long term?

“We want to be in a sellout situation, of course,” Gray said. “I mean, obviously, we know where break-even is. We’re going to need the local community’s support, and we’re looking long-term. We have a three-year deal now, and we can extend it to five. We want that five-year deal in place before the end of the first year. We’re in this for the long haul. Ticket sales will be important, and so will sponsorships.”

jpelletier@sunjournal.com

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