PORTLAND — The Portland Pirates’ decision to sign a five-year lease with the Cumberland County Civic Center on Tuesday means the Androscoggin Bank Colisee will have another new, different anchor tenant in 2014-15.
Meet the Junior Pirates.
The organization’s United States Premier Hockey League team, in its first year currently playing out of Saco, will relocate its home games to Lewiston next season.
“The league right now, in it’s first season, has over 100 NCAA commitments from its players,” Brad Church, the premier team’s general manager, said. “This is one of the dominant feeders to Division I hockey. Every game, every team that comes in, you’re going to see future college stars, future NHL draft picks, which is a lot like what happened with the Maineiacs.”
The current Pirates’ premier roster includes four players committed to Division I college teams, and one ranked in this year’s NHL Central Scouting list.
“I think it’s a good fit,” 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.”
Church said the plan for now is about 16 home games, but Cain is hopeful they can add a few more dates to include scouting showcases, to make the team a viable anchor tenant.
“We may be able to expand that, the league is new,” Cain said. “If we can add a couple of showcases … as long as we get 20 or more event days from the junior team, we’ll be fine.”
Cain also said he is hoping to draw a healthy group of fans — upwards of 1,000 per game.
“If we can, at that many event days, get a minimum of 1,200-1,300 at every game, we’ll be fine,” Jim Cain said. “Obviously we’d like to have more. As the people get used to this team and this league, attendance will grow. But if, out of the gate, we can get 1,200-1,300, that would meet our needs.”
“Mostly all (the games are) on the weekends, Saturday evening, Sunday afternoon games,” Church said. “It’s a very family-friendly schedule, and these are kids who are hungry, excited, and they’re going to enjoy being cheered for. Most places we go, they’re getting seen by scouts and parents. So now, to have a fan base and a following, I think it’s something they’ll really be excited about.”
The team will make its Colisee debut Friday at 5 p.m. against the Connecticut Yankees, immediately preceding a girls’ high school semifinal matchup at the Lewiston rink.
“It’s an opportunity for the fans to get to see our team, the level of play,” Church said. “It’s the team we’re fighting for the last playoff spot with. It’s a really good brand of hockey. we have four Division I commits now, we’ve got a player who is ranked 110th on the NHL Central Scouting list for this year’s draft. So you’ve got kids who are going to move on to play at the highest level of college hockey, and hopefully move on to the highest level of professional hockey.”
The Colisee itself isn’t raking in money from the Portland Pirates’ presence.
“We were prepared for and staff up for larger attendance numbers than we’ve been getting,” Cain said. “Clearly, for the rink itself to be more than a break-even partner, we need to see a couple thousand people at the games, for sure. Less than that, we still have to commit to every game the same number of ushers, of ticket-takers, of box office staff, everything, based on our commitment. We’re happier when the place is busier.”
Cain said from what he’s seen of the local market and economy, junior hockey makes more financial sense than its professional alternative.
“It’s professional hockey being played, and the demands on the team financially, from sponsorship revenue in particular, that you need to get in larger markets to make it sustainable,” Cain said.
That said, he doesn’t see any reason for fans to stop supporting the AHL’s Pirates at the Colisee, despite Tuesday’s announcement.
“We have to remember that this is pro hockey being played in Lewiston,” Cain said. “We’re watching some of the best hockey players in the business at our rink. We’ll see how it goes. There’s still 15 games to be played. I don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic dropoff at all. I think that people recognize the quality of hockey that’s being played.”