Team officials: Maineiacs not folding

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The Lewiston Maineiacs are not folding.

Rumors that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s only U.S.-based franchise is folding up shop are premature, and just plain false, team officials said Saturday, even as word of their impending departure or demise continued to circulate.

Word spread out of Sherbrooke, Quebec, on Friday of that city’s expectation of icing an expansion team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 2012-13 season, a team that would replace the Maineiacs. According to the report, the cash-strapped Lewiston franchise would fold during the QMJHL’s annual meetings and draft session this week, and its players would be distributed across the league’s remaining 17 teams via a dispersal draft later this summer. The league would then return to 18 teams with the approval of an expansion franchise in Sherbrooke the following season to a group of investors led by former NHL goaltender Jocelyn Thibeault.

Lewiston’s president and governor Bill Schurman reiterated Saturday via email that the team has not moved, or folded.

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“We have not folded, we have not been sold and we have not relocated,” Schurman wrote.

He also made sure to issue a reminder that the team and majority owner Mark Just are on slippery financial footing.

“No question from our perspective, it has been no secret that we are on life support through the investment of Mr. Just,” Schurman wrote. “How much longer that continues is his and only his call.”

Reached briefly for comment Saturday, Maineiacs’ majority owner Mark Just spoke briefly and abruptly before hanging up the phone: “I don’t have anything to say. Can you take that and run with it?”

Maineiacs’ minority owner Wendell Young painted a much clearer picture. Young, a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, is the general manager of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.

“I get all the rumors, too,” Young said. “I’ve heard things about a dispersal draft, I’ve heard reports coming out that the team is being sold. Right now, there is no truth to any of that. Zero. Things could change next week, but right now, there is nothing like that in place at all.”

Paul Spellman, who jumped on board as a minority owner with the Maineiacs last summer, has been similarly following along, but his answers are also few and far between.

“I have not been able to substantiate any of the rumors on the blogs, the twits, the chat rooms, or coming out of Quebec,” Spellman said. “Things could change next week, but for now there is nothing that can confirm those reports. You have to remember, Mark and Wendell have sunk a tremendous amount of money into this franchise and sometime that fact gets lost, or somewhat clouded, in the emotion of the moment. Nobody can dispute that they personally have subsidized the hockey fans’ entertainment for a very long time.”

Some of the Maineiacs’ returning players began weighing in via Twitter, too, as reports fanned out across the hockey world via the Internet.

“Dispersal draft? Team folding? Traded? Where the (heck) can I play now?” wrote captain Cameron Critchlow.

“Can’t happen, this is our year,” forward Matthew Bissonnette said, referring to the fact that the Maineiacs are poised to be one of the top teams in the league next season.

“If this is it, it’s been a (heck) of a ride and I Thank You!!!” forward Michael Chaput wrote, listing off his fellow teammates who are also on Twitter.

The will-they-or-won’t-they-move saga pertaining to the Maineiacs’ intentions to relocate has played out as a soap opera for more than two years. The team fist announced its intentions to relocate to Boisbriand, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, in January 2009. The Montreal Junior blocked that move, using a proximity clause in the league’s rule book that states a team has exclusive territorial rights within a certain geographical radius.

That failed attempt to move essentially forced then-president and governor Matt McKnight’s resignation. Don MacAdam assumed the role of coach and ultimately team president for a short while before Just released him in 2010.

Schurman arrived on the scene in the summer of 2010, and brought with him plenty of gusto and energy, promising to “do everything in (his) power to try and make the team work here.”

But by December, the rumors again began to surface.

The Maineiacs’ attendance was better than the previous season, but still well below a sustainable level in terms of profit. Business support plummeted, too.

And with Schurman’s connections to Summerside, Prince Edward Island, rumors of the franchise’s wish to relocate there surfaced and spread rapidly.

The league’s official date to request relocation passed, but the rumors persisted, fueled by the Maineiacs’ president’s frequent trips to the island province, and the team’s decision to tour the city and its facilities. During the first round of the President’s Cup playoffs, a group from Summerside attended a Maineiacs game in Moncton.

Two weeks ago, media outlets in Atlantic Canada reported that, in an informal poll of the league’s decision-makers, support for a second team in PEI was thin, and if a formal vote were to take place, the measure would be shot down. The league never called a formal vote.

The Thibeault-led group and a group of investors from PEI have also reportedly led charges to purchase the Maineiacs from Just, and relocate the franchise to their respective markets. In the past, particularly after the team’s first failed attempt at relocation, Colisee owner Jim Cain and Portland Pirates owner Brian Petrovek have also expressed interest in becoming part of the team’s organizational structure.

“It’s all too late, as far as the Maineiacs are concerned,” Cain said. “They said they’d inform us, and this is a very late hour to be even talking about these kinds of things with the draft next week. I don’t know what their current status us. There’s a lot of people phoning me right now. There’s an incredible number of season ticket-holders, so hopefully everything will be in the open air soon.”

Petrovek also attempted to purchase the Androscoggin Bank Colisee when it was up for sale by the City of Lewiston, losing out to a bid from Cain’s Firland Management company.

“We are very interested in the Maineiacs having success, which is why, toward the later part of their season, I wanted to reach out to see if there were ways we could help each other,” Petrovek said. “We do want to see them succeed. It’s good for our business, it’s good for the growth of competitive hockey in the state and in the region. We’re in the business of growing a sport, so it doesn’t help us to see a team like that struggle. I don’t want to see them fail, nor do I think they want to see us fail, either.”

The Maineiacs and the Colisee are also still bound by a lease. Cain said Saturday he’s not sure what the ramifications would be if the team decides to fold rather than attempts to relocate.

“I’m going to have to get some advice,” Cain said. “But I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening.”

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