The Androscoggin Bank Colisee has sponsors lined up, ticket sales are meeting or exceeding expectations and the Federal Hockey League is preparing to make its only chance at a successful first impression a memorable venture.
Thursday, hockey fans in the greater Lewiston-Auburn area will get their first chance to see high-level, competitive hockey at the Colisee since the final Lewiston Maineiacs' home playoff game of the 2010-11 season when the FHL opens its season at the Lewiston arena with a game between the Brooklyn Aviators and the Akwesanse Warriors, a rematch of the league's final from a year ago.
The FHL has been in contact with Colisee owner and President of Firland Management Jim Cain since the Maineiacs began publicly acknowledging financial difficulties and potential relocation. With teams scattered across the Northeast, the fledgling 'Single-A' professional league wanted one of its franchises to call Lewiston, also the former home of the Maine Nordiques, home.
Until the Maineiacs vacated the building last spring, though, Cain's hands were tied. With the team sold and then disbanded by the QMJHL, the building opened, and Cain and DeFranco resumed discussions.
"Fanatical hockey people," FHL Chief Administrator Phil DeFranco said. "You've got to have a nice-sized barn that people want to go to. We have a target of about 50 or 60 barns, but if there's already a Q team there, or an American Hockey League team, or an ECHL team, we're not going to go there, because there's only so many entertainment dollars out there. When we saw that the Q team was leaving Lewiston, it's like the little bells and whistles went off and we said, 'Oo, let's get a hold of (Cain). He was able to give us five Thursdays, and we figured if we can get in a couple, three thousand on a Thursday, what would a Friday/Saturday do with a product that's their own? That's what we're hoping."
The five-game set that begins Thursday and runs once per month through February amounts to a test of sorts for the FHL and its brand of hockey in the Maine marketplace.
"These are post-junior, pre-high-level pros, with some veterans mixed in," Cain said. "This is a good chance, at least in the interim, for the people of this market to have a look at this level of hockey and test their response to it.
"It will be interesting to see how the fans react to this brand of hockey," Cain added. "The hockey fans in this town are savvy. More recently, they've been able to watch the developmental side of the game and had a good taste of what high-level junior hockey is. This hockey will be different in that the players are older, and it's less about development and more about going out and playing the game at a high level."
Cain admitted that, from a local point of view, identifying with the teams and the players of the FHL during the league's five-game foray to the Colisee might be an initial challenge for the league, and fro the promoters.
"The fans knowing the teams and identifying with the players is going to be a small hurdle," Cain admitted, "but the teams are all bringing their mascots, and there will be some ways to create some rivalries in the stands as far as which team to cheer for."
From a sponsorship point of view, Cain is already at least as well-off as he'd imagined.
"I think it's going to be reasonably well-attended, at least this first game," Cain said. "Judging from the response of sponsors and former season ticket-holders of this facility, there seems to be some anxious hockey fans out there."
"We have dedicated sponsors for each game already," Cain continued, "and we'll be having a "Pink in the Rink" night for our first one on Oct. 27 in support of breast cancer awareness."
The FHL and the Colisee have an agreement in terms of compensation for travel for each of the teams. Otherwise, Cain said, there is minimal financial risk involved overall.
"From a business standpoint, what we've done is covered all of the travel expenses of each of the teams to get here," Cain said. "So yeah, there's some risk involved, but so far the response has been good that we've been getting. The biggest question to answer for us is, 'Is this a sustainable product for this market?' We don't know the answer to that yet, but we'll see how these games go."
"We're hoping the people that run the Colisee, Jim Cain in particular ... we know they've got a lot options," DeFranco said. "But we're hoping he picks us as the option. We're hoping that Jim likes what he sees, that he likes the caliber of play and we hope the fans like the caliber of play, that's more important."
Cain admitted that, while not having the Maineiacs around has allowed the facility to schedule more prime ice time for youth hockey and some tournaments and other concert acts, the reality remains that the rink needs a full-time tenant to be profitable.
"One thing we do know is that this facility needs a long-term, full-time hockey tenant to be financially viable," Cain said. "At the same time we are experimenting with this product, we are also in discussions with others regarding that kind of team and that kind of commitment."
"I've never made a secret my desire to be a part of an ownership group involved in United States-based junior hockey in some form. So there's that side of things, as well."
But, Cain said, for now, the FHL's venture into Maine, the so-called "Maine Event," is full speed ahead.
"We're hoping that after the first couple of games, it's successful enough where Jim and I can sit down and possibly talk about a franchise for 2012-13," DeFranco said.
Hockey fans will get their first taste of the second-year pro league Thursday with a matchup featuring the Akwesanse Warriors and Brooklyn Aviators. On November 17, the Danville Dashers will take on the Danbury Whalers. On December 29, the Cape Cod Bluefins will battle the Vermont Wild, and on January 26, 2012, the Wild will return to square off against the 1000 Islands Privateers. The series finale will take place on February 9, with the Privateers and New Jersey Outlaws doing battle at the Colisee.