By Donna Keene Rousseau / Sun Journal Staff

The arrival of Lewiston’s own major junior hockey team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs, has caused a resonating ring of excitement in a community of die-hard hockey fans. More importantly, Lewiston-Auburn is center ice, enjoying not only the economic benefits of having its very own major junior hockey team but also the attention commanded by a community clearly on the move.

Long before the blades met the ice, however, there was the dream of bringing a major junior team to Lewiston-Auburn. Central Maine Civic Center owner Roger Therriault, who has lived within a mile of the arena all his life, remembers his father, a business-minded man, purchasing properties others considered too much of a risk and readying them for potential, new businesses. Through his father, he learned about the trials and triumphs that come from having a vision and following your instincts.

Therriault first pursued the dream of bringing a major junior hockey team to the community in 1992, when he and Frank Corraro co-owned the arena.

“Mr. Gilles Courteau, the Commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, served as our consulting contact for teams looking for new cities. On two other occasions, we had a team lined up to move to Lewiston but, for different reasons, neither deal came to fruition,” explains Therriault. “The third time was the charm.”

The Sherbrooke Castors were looking to move. They considered Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island but decided against the location as there was already another team in close proximity. Then eyes turned toward Lewiston.

“They thought the city owned the building and they had specific league requirements that the facility would need to accommodate before they could consider the Lewiston location further,” elaborates Therriault. “After the initial contact, the city called me and asked whether I thought we could renovate the building in a short time frame.”

“Mr. Just, the team owner, called us in December of 2002,” recalled Greg Mitchell, Assistant City Administrator for the City of Lewiston. “The team needed to decide on a new location within ninety days and they needed a facility that could be ready in time for training camp in August.”

Lewiston’s Franco American heritage combined with the demographics of a half-million people within a 30-mile radius of Lewiston-Auburn made the match appealing. With players whose primary language was French, the existing French culture set the stage for an easier transition to the United States.

“The challenge then became whether we could make the necessary renovations in time. The season began in August ,which gave us only a matter of months to get the facility ready,” recalls Mitchell.

Financing for projects of the magnitude of the Central Maine Civic Center can generally take up to a year to secure. True to their commitment to creating a full-service community and rebuilding the city’s clear assets, the City of Lewiston backed Therriault’s loan with People’s Heritage and the renovations were under way.

“The time schedule was tight, and things happened extremely fast,” describes Therriault. “The city guided us through the process of signing leases with the team and city as local contractors stepped up to the plate to get the job done.”

Therriault reels off a long list of businesses that committed to the civic center’s completion, among them Taylor Engineering and Dick Therriault (Roger’s brother) who served as the key project engineer; Dick Robert Masonry; Gendron & Gendron Construction; John Springer Painting; Rodrique & Son Painting; Thayer Corp.; Lebel Sheet Metal; and Gerry Langlais Welding & Fabrications.

“These people were so dedicated. They put in long hours, some working long into the evening to bring this renovation in on time and on budget,” commented Therriault, whose family jumped in to support the renovations in whatever way they could.

“My wife and I have eaten, dreamt and slept of nothing but this place,” Therriault admits. “She’s been with me every step of the way, and we feel we’ve accomplished for this community and facility what we have always wanted.”

Therriault says even before August the phones have not stopped ringing, not only with requests for MAINEiac season tickets but also for space bookings. He has already tripled his event bookings for 2004. Still, with all the increase demand for the building, Therriault has been able to keep true to accommodating the youngest users of the facility, the youth and high school hockey leagues. The ice will continue to be available at reasonable hours as before, with some minor adjustments.

“Public skating is the activity which will be affected the most,” confirms Therriault.

Even with the facility up and running, renovations will be ongoing. Mid-September into January will see the completion of offices, the pro shop, one luxury box and a stairway and elevator reaching to the upper most level of the building. For 2005-2006 season, a VIP lounge is slated for completion along with additional luxury boxes and an enclosed walkway that will run along the outside of the building – all handicapped accessible.

“The renovation of the Central Maine Civic Center was an investment long overdue,” Mitchell says. “A full service community needs a facility like this to attract people to work and live here.”

He continues, “Often times people miss the significance of rebuilding the important community assets. The arrival of the Lewiston MAINEiacs, the rebuilding of the Civic Center is a wave just starting to crest. The community is experiencing a higher level of optimism than ever before and the success of major junior hockey in Lewiston-Auburn will breed more success stories in the way of other businesses including real estate, banking, lodging, dining, and entertainment.”

Mitchell and other members of the business community believe the economic impact will continue to be significant.

“We expect a huge economic impact on our community,” indicates Mitchell. “We project three to five million generated by the hockey team alone with an additional three to five million brought in through indirect sources.” He further illustrates his point. “Imagine, conservatively, 250,000 people visiting our community during the year and each filling his tank with gas. That would have tremendous economic impact.”

Chip Morrison, Executive Director of the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce agrees.

“The economic impact of the Lewiston MAINEiacs is clearly substantial and will become more so as the season gets fully under way. More importantly, however, is the community pride that comes with having a major sporting team calling Lewiston-Auburn home. Bringing major junior hockey to Lewiston -Auburn is an achievement made possible by the combined efforts of the professionals from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the energized members of our community, from individuals and families to business professionals and civic leaders.”

Morrison also acknowledges the immediate and very professional commitment the hockey organization has already displayed in the community.

“Everything they have done here has been first class,” he compliments. “Their professionalism has been exemplary. They’ve already demonstrated their commitment to the community through their participation in civic organizations including the Chamber and their involvement in events including the Maine State Parade, the Festival de Joie, and the Great Falls Balloon Festival. With their Billet Family Program, they’ve reached out even further, building relationships with our families that certainly reach far beyond business. I think this is an accomplishment deserving of applause; it’s just wonderful.”

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s professionalism also impressed Marcel Bilodeau of Maine Bank & Trust of Auburn.

“When Greg Mitchell pursued the idea of bringing the team here, it became clear it was the right thing to do for the community financially,” says Bilodeau. “The more I learned about the team owner, Mark Just, and his community-mindedness, the more convinced I became this would payoff, not only financially but also socially for Lewiston-Auburn. Our bank was just one (part) of a larger team of businesses and individuals who worked diligently to facilitate the team’s move to our community.”

Bilodeau served as a point of contact, working closely with Matt McKnight, Vice President and Governor of the Lewiston MAINEiacs, to assure all the personal and business banking needs were met. He assisted the organization in establishing credit and acted as a reference for those requiring an assortment of services ranging from personal checking and savings accounts to loans.

“Our community has waited a long time for a hockey team and organization like the QMJL. I believe it was worth the wait,” he added.

Therriault leans back in his chair and smiles when asked how it feels not only to have played such an integral role in the re-energizing of his community but also to see his dream of major junior hockey in Lewiston-Auburn become reality.

“The community has waited a long time. It’s not every day you can be a part of something like this. You dream, but is it really possible?”

Happily, the answer appears to be “yes.”

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