SACO — The Portland Pirates’ extended run in Lewiston ended prematurely Wednesday after a shootout loss to the Albany Devils, one day after the team announced it was relocating its final home game of the season to its practice facility in Saco.

Borne of a lease dispute, the Pirates’ tenure in Lewiston ended in similar fashion, when a scheduling snafu with the Kora Shrine Circus resulted in a double-booked Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

The circus.

An apt ending to a season filled with spectacle.

But before people rush to call this Pirates’ season a “lost season,” or a “wasted” season, let’s try to take an objective look at everything that happened.

There was, believe it or not, some good — and some bad — to go with the “ugly.”

What began as a circus involving lease negotiations, he-said-he-said barbs from Cumberland County Civic Center officials and Pirates officials — and ultimately the temporary relocation of a franchise — ended with a literal circus occupying the team’s temporary home. Let’s file that one in the “ugly” category.

And while that is the most recent event in our minds and clearly the easiest to recollect and blast for its apparent absurdity, the season was not at all completely lost.

The good

Eight players on the current roster, and a few more who have since left the team or have been traded, have skated in at least one game with the Pirates’ parent club, the Phoenix Coyotes, in the National Hockey League.

All season long, the coaching staff in Portland and the brass in Phoenix have stressed that the AHL club serves a dual purpose, one of which is to produce and develop talent within the team’s system, to ultimately benefit the NHL club.

In the three years of the teams’ affiliation, the Pirates have sent more than a dozen players to the Coyotes in a full-time capacity, and more than a half-dozen earned their first cup of coffee this season. From a developmental side, the Pirates’ coaching staff must be doing something right.

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The attendance woes about which every media outlet reported (including this one) weren’t nearly as bad in the first part of the season as they were later in the season.

That may not be an important distinction to some, but really, it is.

Originally, the Pirates were slated to play 12 games at the Colisee. A 12-pack. A nice, easy, round number around which the Colisee, the city and the team could market the games.

Upon closer examination, using the 13 games played before the new year, the Pirates’ attendance in Lewiston was actually pretty good. They averaged 2,664 fans, and sold out the Colisee three times.

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The team was also in contention on the ice for most of that run, which as everyone knows but some still fail to admit, matters when it comes to attendance. Many fans refuse to pay $10 to see a team they perceive will lose every time it steps on the ice.

But early in the season, that wasn’t an issue. The team even had a few winning streaks in the first half of the campaign. There were feel-good stories of players making comebacks, some trying to recapture past NHL glory while using Portland as a stepping stone.

But somewhere, something happened to the team, to its on-ice qualified success, and to its ability to draw fans in Lewiston.

The bad

For as much “good” as there is to find with the team’s season at the Colisee, every item can be turned around and put into this “bad” category, simply by changing the time of year.

The roster call-ups slowed down in the second half of the season, and when they did happen, they robbed the Pirates of some of their better players at the AHL level. Add to those call-ups a few key injuries, and the roster was decimated, leaving the team to play against teams with much better overall talent.

The result was a slide in the standings. Already on the bottom half of the “middle” teams, the Pirates slowly descended into contention for the worst record in the AHL (a distinction the team ultimately, dubiously earned).

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After the original games under the team’s agreement with the Colisee, the games on the back half of the schedule the team was originally supposed to play in Portland drew fewer and fewer fans. The team’s slide didn’t help. The team’s announcement that it would return to the Civic Center in Portland next season further drove the wedge between the team and the Lewiston-Auburn area fans, and the final rescheduling of games at the end of the season was the final dagger.

The team’s overall average attendance dropped more than 400 people per game over the final 21 games of the season at the Colisee, and left to question in many people’s minds the viability of Lewiston’s Colisee as a venue for any kind of hockey, and also Lewiston-Auburn’s moniker as a “hockey town.”

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The team started to slide as the calendar turned to 2014. The Pirates won only two of their first 11 games after New Year’s Day. Plagued by inconsistency, the team would start games well and finish poorly, or start slowly and finish well, but not well enough to dig itself out of its first- or second-period ditch.

More often than not, the swoon came in the second frame.

But more than losing games, the team’s perceived missteps away from the ice had as much to do with waning attendance.

The ugly

Ugly is the only way to describe any confrontation that keeps a sports franchise from its home, or prevents a league or a team from playing at all. Work stoppages in any league — player strikes or league-imposed lockouts — are ugly, both for the leagues and for the fans. Contract negotiations now are, by and large, ugly.

And when both sides decide to dig their heels deep into the ice with four-foot spikes, the result is as ugly as it gets.

That’s what happened late last summer, when the Civic Center’s board of trustees and Pirates’ management started butting heads over an agreement the team believed it had reached with the building’s representatives the previous spring.

The resulting battle — and ultimately litigation — forced the Pirates to look for a temporary home.

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The barbs began flying two weeks ago among those who noticed the scheduling conflict between the team and the Kora Shrine Circus.

“Who’s going to blink first, the hockey players or the clowns?”

“Send in the elephants, they might play better defense.”

“This whole season has been a circus, so I’m buying a ticket for Saturday. How can I tell the difference?”

There were more, some more pointed than others.

And the team, the Colisee and the circus deserved all of them. It’s not possible that no representatives from any of those entities realized the schedules overlapped before March. In fact, I guarantee someone noticed something long before then. And I have it on good word that at least one party attempted to do something about it.

But to let it linger that long without resolution was a mistake. A bad one. And it made for a horrendous end to the Pirates’ stay at the Colisee.

Redemption and reality

The Pirates did not go out on a sour note.

They could have.

Following Wednesday’s loss to Albany, the Pirates started to tear everything of theirs down, from locker room signs to wiring and camera gear in the press box. The backed up a box truck and started to load it up.

But instead of storming off after the worst home season — and worst overall season — in franchise history, Pirates’ coach Ray Edwards stuck around for one last round of questions. He praised the Colisee staff for its work in making the situation with which they were faced bearable for everyone involved. He praised the faithful fans who attended most of the team’s games, acknowleging the circumstances under which the season was played were difficult at best.

And then the team placed a full-page ad in the Sun Journal thanking the community for accepting the team when it was down and in need of a home.

The reality is, the cities of the Androscoggin did exactly that. Lewiston/Auburn provided a welcome home for an AHL franchise. This likely has been the final hurrah for professional hockey at the Colisee on a full-time basis. It wasn’t ideal, but the cities and their hockey fans did the best they could, and the business community and they should be proud of that.

The Junior Pirates are still planning to send their USPHL premier team to Lewiston for their games next season. It’s not professional hockey, nor is it quite to the level at which the Lewiston Maineiacs played during their eight-year tenure at the Colisee.

But it’s something. It’s hockey at the Colisee for at least one more season. And it’s a show of faith from an organization that would have every right to avoid Lewiston/Auburn altogether.

But they aren’t. They took the good, the bad, and the ugly in stride. They haven’t forgotten this season.

Nor should you.

Justin Pelletier is sports editor. His email is [email protected]


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