Pirates winning, on and off ice

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An affiliation with the NHL’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim has Portland back near the top of the American Hockey League.

PORTLAND – Beth Pritchard was waiting for the right time to buy a cowbell.

Among a group of die-hard Portland Pirates fans in Section K of the Cumberland County Civic Center, the Scarborough native talked about ringing in Pirate victories with her fellow season-ticket holders.

“For 10 years, she’s talked about a cowbell,” said Erica Doyle of South Portland.

The only hitch has been the state’s only professional hockey team hadn’t given people much to clang about in recent years.

Spring has meant a sputtering end to dismal regular seasons or another disappointing early exit from the playoffs.

Now the Pirates have produced their most successful season ever, and Pritchard is armed with a small red cowbell.

“It’s for excitement,” she says.

The rejuvenated Pirates have produced just that. The set team records for wins, points and home wins (26). They also set an AHL mark with 27 road wins. Portland has clinched its division and the Eastern Conference and has high hopes as the Calder Cup playoffs begin Thursday.

“Everything about this team is better,” said Lorna Doyle, Erica’s mother. “The way it is run. The way they play. The players themselves. It’s all better. It’s a whole different feeling.”

It wasn’t too long ago that the team wasn’t generating this kind of interest. Nancy Cavallaro, of Portland, along with Shawnna Hitchcock, have been season ticket holders in Section K for over a decade. Even they were tempted to either give up their tickets, or not use them.

“A couple of years ago, I hardly came at all,” said Cavallaro. “It’s kind of a relief. You don’t feel like you’re wasting your money.”

“I came because I had the tickets,” said Hitchcock, of North Yarmouth. “Now we enjoy it more.”

The Pirates were so lackluster on the ice, that the group of regulars, including Sarah Perham of South Portland and John Halladay, of Scarborough, would often be oblivious to the game.

“We all had season tickets, but over the last five years, we’d all socialize and hardly pay attention to the game,” said Erica Doyle.

Time for changes

The Pirates organization knew the ship was faltering. This was not the swashbuckling team that had won the Calder Cup its first year and was one of the best organizations in the AHL. The Pirates had lost its swagger on the ice and was losing its place in the hearts of fans off it.

“Change was critical for us,” said Brian Petrovek, Portland’s managing owner and CEO. “We went through a five-year string. That was wearing thin to our fan base. It comes to a point where enough is enough and you have to deliver.”

The clock was ticking on the Pirates’ future. There were discussions about a move to Worcester and speculation that East Coast League teams or Major Junior Hockey League teams might take their place.

“We were in dire straits,” said Petrovek. “We were challenged by the lease and by the on-ice product. That time that we spent looking at Worcester was real. We had to. If we weren’t able to get the terms and conditions we now have with this new lease, from a business perspective, we were going to be forced to go. To go with that, we had to have a change in the on ice product.”

Ducking the issue

Dale Darling has seen all but four home games during the history of the Maine Mariners and Pirates, and those were back in 1978. He’s seen the ups and downs of pro hockey in Portland as the team’s videographer.

“The key has been the philosophy of Anaheim,” said Darling. “Their philosophy is, We want to teach them how to win’ — not how to survive a loss. That’s what Washington did.”

When Petrovek announced the new affiliation with the Anaheim last May, he saw a brighter future. The team had negotiated a more manageable lease that runs through 2010. The team had already embarked on a more aggressive marketing strategy. Now the five-year deal with the Ducks put the Pirates resurrection in motion.

“When we formally announced it, we just knew that we had something different and special and had the makings of a major change,” said Petrovek.

The terms of the affiliation agreement weren’t significantly different than what the Pirates had with Washington for 12 years, but the intent was a change for the better, where developing players also meant winning championships.

“We sensed a difference in terms of the commitment,” said Petrovek. “It really goes beyond what’s in the five-page document. It’s the spirit and the culture and the commitment behind it.”

Al Coates was the interim general manager for Anaheim at the time. He says he’s always felt minor league teams can develop and win at the same time.

“I was criticized about that previously, that you can’t do that, but I believe you can do that and we’ve been able to do that,” said Coates, who is now the senior advisor to the general manager.

When Brian Burke was named the general manager in Anaheim, that philosophy was solidified. Burke was a former Mariner, won a Calder Cup in Portland and knows the area well.

“With Brian, its only been strengthened,” said Petrovek. “He loves the market. He played here. He has his own excitement level and his own personality.”

The Mighty Ducks have made a conscious effort to keep tabs on the Pirates. When Jordan Smith suffered a career-ending eye injury, the organization stepped in and vowed to honor its three-year contract with him. When the Pirates needed a goaltender, the organization acquired Jani Hurme for Portland, even though he’s playing on an NHL contract. Burke, Coates or some Anaheim staff have been in Portland regularly. When the parent club played in Boston, the Ducks bused the Pirates down for the game and took them all out to dinner.

“It was a great day,” said Pirates coach Kevin Dineen. “It showed this is an organization that wants them to see success. I think the kids have shown they’re acknowledging that.”

When the Mariners and Pirates were most successful, it was when the parent clubs were active and supportive of the operations at the minor league level. When that attention was lacking, the results were obvious.

“The only other club who had the same mentality was Philadelphia,” said Darling. “We didn’t have it with the Devils. We didn’t have it with the Bruins, and we didn’t have it with the Capitals.”

Fresh start

While the Ducks were a breath of fresh air for Portland, the city was a welcomed change for the Mighty Ducks.

“Last year, in Cincinnati, our shortest trip was four hours to Cleveland,” said defenseman Shane O’Brien. “Now our closest trip is about an hour down the road.”

A West Coast team with an affiliate on the East Coast seems a bit of a logistical nightmare, but the Ducks were drawn to Portland for a reason.

“The first impression is the city,” said Dineen, who was named the AHL’s most outstanding coach. “There’s such a Wow’ factor.’ The downtown itself, and then you go for a drive in the outskirts. It’s a spectacular place to live. It’s vibrant as far as restaurants, nightlife and golf courses.

“It’s a very eclectic town. If you enjoy the outdoors, hunting and fishing, there’s probably no better place to be in North America. So for my guys, its been a real positive experience to come in here.”

There’s the strong hockey tradition, the small-market feel and wide-spread fan base.

“I think the environment is really critical,” said Coates. “I’ve always been a big believer of community development, and there’s nobody better than Kevin in community development and charitable work. We felt it was always important that our guys be known where they play and be recognized on the streets, that they have an understanding and a commitment back in the place where they live.”

The players have traditionally enjoyed Portland. Many have taken up permanent residence in the area. For a team that was easily overlooked in the huge market of Cincinnati, the players have taken to Portland like Ducks to water.

“I’m a firm believer that happy players are good players,” said center Zenon Konopka. “Everyone’s having a lot of fun here, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re having so much success.”

There are 15 players that have had their most productive years this season.

“When you see how many guys are having career years, (Dustin) Penner, (Geoff) Peters, (Aaron) Gavey – it stems from having that fresh start, putting the past behind you and coming to the rink and playing as well as you can,” said Konopka.

Keep the faith

The commitment of the organization and the contentment of the players is not lost on the fans. It has renewed the passion of the Pirates faithful.

“The involvement out in the community and the involvement with the fans, it’s a whole different feel,” said Hitchcock.

O’Brien says the fan response has been tremendous. The team averaged 4,840 this season, 16th in the league. The team averaged 4,287 last year and was 22nd out of 28 teams. The combination of a rejuvenated fan base and an exciting team has dramatically improved the atmosphere.

“I’ve talked to people around town about how different it was from last year,” said O’Brien. “If you come to one of our games, I guarantee, whether you know everything about hockey, or don’t know very much about hockey, it’s going to put a good taste in your mouth and you’re going to want to come back.”

Rule changes have helped enhance the product and winning certainly helps generate interest. Philadelphia, New Jersey and Washington all made big splashes in Portland initially, but enthusiasm and success wasn’t lasting.

When coaches Barry Trotz, Paul Gardner and Washington general manager David Poile left for Nashville and Pirate owner Tom Ebright died, the early success of the Pirates was never duplicated.

“That’s a good lesson for not letting complacency set in,” said Petrovek. “I don’t think these guys will do that. I know Brian. I played against him in college. He wants to win every single night. He hates losing. I don’t think that’s going to ever get lost and Kevin is the same way.”

While the Pirates financial situation has gotten better, they still struggle to make money.

“It’s improving but we have a long way to go,” said Petrovek. “We had five years of losses, and it takes a while to get out from under that, but now it’s a strong base. We’re getting called. Before, it was us calling out. So demand is rising.”

Petrovek says the key to the future is a new arena. Whether the Civic Center is renovated or a new building is built in the Greater Portland area, the Pirates long for a state-of-the art facility that allows amenities that can generate the corporate dollars.

“It’s that 20 percent margin that comes with the amenities that Hadlock has and we don’t have,” said Petrovek. “From a business perspective, it is the one major missing piece that will ultimately give us the results that we need. We know at the end of the day, it’s the piece we have to have to have long term success.”

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