PORTLAND — The Portland Pirates are going home.
The American Hockey League affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes has called the Androscoggin Bank Colisee of Lewiston home this season after a lease dispute boiled up late last summer between the club and the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
But Pirates ownership and the Civic Center’s board of trustees resumed talks in December, and announced Tuesday afternoon a new, five-year lease agreement.
“Relief is a part of it, for sure, negotiation are hard,” Neal Pratt, president of the board of trustees, said. “(Negotiations) weren’t personally contentious, but the issues are difficult. Both sides have worked a long time … Relief is a part of it. We’re pleased we reached our objectives and that the team was able to reach its objective and that we found common ground.”
“We’ve certainly made it a journey,” Pirates majority owner Ron Cain said. “And now that we’re past that, we’re very much looking forward to earning (the fans’) trust back. We absolutely know this was kind of a ‘scorch the earth’ event, and we need to do something to earn back the fans.”
The Trustees met last week and approved by a 6-2 vote a new agreement, which they then sent to the team with a time limit of close of business Monday.
The team accepted the terms of the agreement, which includes a five-year stay at the Civic Center, and the resolution of a handful of issues that had previously divided the sides, including revenue sharing of digital advertising and concession sales.
“In these cases, it doesn’t do you any good to bring up the past or look in the rear view mirror,” Cain said. “It was always about putting a deal together going forward.”
“There are a couple of changes to what we had agreed to with the team last summer,” Pratt said. “Some clarification with regard to some digital signage. They were clarified in a way that makes sense for both sides. And there was another issue for AHL mandates. If the AHL as a league passes certain rules, the question became, what does that impose on the Civic Center, as opposed to the team, and who bears the cost. I think ultimately these are what got us over the hump.”
The most public of the issues in August was the concession split. A Maine law prohibited the Pirates and Civic Center from sharing revenue from liquor sales because the Pirates were not on the license. In December, Maine Senate President Justin Alfond introduced emergency legislation that would allow the Pirates and Civic Center to share alcohol revenue. Alfond (D-Portland) introduced the emergency bill allowing pro sports franchises that do not have their own liquor license to share alcohol revenue with venues that have a seating capacity of 3,000 or more. Cain and Pratt both testified in favor of the measure, which has since passed committee.
“The parties anticipate — and we don’t want to count our chickens to early — but my understanding is that it came out of committee with a favorable report,” Pratt said. “The expectation is that that will pass, and we’ll adopt the 57½ percent as we’d talked about. If that doesn’t happen for one reason or another, it reverts to the 65 percent we’d talked about previously.”
The latest lease proposal came bit more than a month after Cain went from minority owner to majority owner in the Pirates’ organization. One of the first things he did was drop a lawsuit the team had been pursuing against the trustees, and invited talks to resume for the first time since late summer.
“When we first sat down in December, one of the first things we agreed on was that we weren’t going to reopen discussions,” Pratt said. “There were a number of issues that had helped create the impasse back in August. What we decided generally as parameters, if we could focus on those, if we could creatively, not in a way that reiterates the parties’ positions previously, but creatively focus on those areas, that maybe we could achieve the result. They weren’t easy. But ultimately we got something on those issues, and here we are.”
Business leaders from Portland had encouraged both sides to resume talks. The Portland Chamber of Commerce said the hockey team’s absence had a direct impact on several local businesses, including restaurants, bars and hotels.
The Pirates will complete their current regular season in Lewiston, per an agreement with the Colisee and owner Firland Management.
“Regular-season games, we’re committed up to Lewiston,” Cain said. “Playoff games, we’ll have to discuss. It depends of the Civic Center will be ready for that. That’s something we’d have to talk about.”
Cain was appreciative of those who have supported the Pirates in Lewiston this season, and said the team is still committed to providing a quality hockey experience for the fans there.
“I don’t know that anything changes,” Cain said. “We’ve got to work harder to make sure we’re bringing a good product to the people in Lewiston, and show our gratitude to them, as well. My view of the Pirates is that the Pirates are a Maine team, not just the Portland Pirates. That’s what I’d like. But it’s home facility is here in Portland. We will continue to work hard in Lewiston and continue to try and bring them a high-end product there.”
To that end, Cain has been instrumental in finding another team to play in Lewiston. Beginning in the fall, the Portland Junior Pirates’ entry in the United States Premier Hockey League will play its home games in Lewiston.
“On the heels of this happening, our premier junior program is going to play there all next year and beyond, assuming everything goes well there,” Cain said. “Friday night we’re going to unveil the team in the Lewiston market. People will have a chance to go see what it’s all about, see what the level of play is. I think it’s a good option for them for high-end hockey.”
“I think it’s a good fit,” Jim Cain said. “I think the greater Lewiston-Auburn area is welcoming of junior hockey, having experienced it before. And I think getting to know the players and their experience living in the community is going to be important to Lewiston-area fans. And that’s part of the reason junior hockey will be successful.”