Pirates, Cumberland County Civic Center strike deal to return hockey team to Portland

Ron Cain (right), new majority owner of the Portland Pirates hockey team, fields questions from reporters Tuesday afternoon at Holiday Inn By the Bay. Cain joined Neal Pratt (left), chairman of the Cumberland County Civic Center board of trustees, for a news conference announcing a new five-year lease deal that will return the team to Portland.
Ron Cain (right), new majority owner of the Portland Pirates hockey team, fields questions from reporters Tuesday afternoon at Holiday Inn By the Bay. Cain joined Neal Pratt (left), chairman of the Cumberland County Civic Center board of trustees, for a news conference announcing a new five-year lease deal that will return the team to Portland. Buy Photo
Posted Feb. 04, 2014, at 2:22 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 04, 2014, at 3:24 p.m.
A street banner hanging outside the Cumberland County Civic Center in September celebrates the venue's relationship with the Portland Pirates professional hockey team.
A street banner hanging outside the Cumberland County Civic Center in September celebrates the venue's relationship with the Portland Pirates professional hockey team. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The Pirates professional hockey team, which has spent most of the past half year locked in a bitter lease dispute with its longtime home arena, has reached a deal with the Cumberland County Civic Center and will return to Portland no later than next season.

The two parties announced Tuesday that they have agreed on a five-year deal starting next season, ending an impasse that both sides at times described as insurmountable.

The gridlock renewed what in recent years had become recurring rumors that the team would leave Maine in pursuit of a better deal elsewhere, with Glens Falls, N.Y., an oft-cited possibility to land the club until local officials there dispelled the notion last month.

“We know this was kind of a scorched earth event, and we’re going to have to earn back [the trust] of the fans and give them something back,” Pirates majority owner Ron Cain said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

The Pirates have spent the current season playing home games at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston after talks to renew their lease with the Portland-based civic center broke down over the summer.

The American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes sought to gain a share of the arena’s concessions and advertising revenues for the first time during negotiations last spring and summer, but the team later learned it couldn’t profit from alcohol sales under state law because it didn’t have the appropriate liquor licenses.

The Pirates and civic center trustees then clashed over how much in additional food and advertising revenues the team should receive to make up for the lost share of alcohol sales, among other points of contention.

To help resolve the stalemate, Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, submitted a bill to allow venues to share alcohol profits with sports franchises.

As part of the new lease deal, which was approved by the civic center trustees last week and subsequently signed by team officials, the Pirates will get 57.5 percent of the concessions revenues, including alcohol sales, assuming Alfond’s bill ultimately passes.

If the bill is defeated in the Legislature or vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, a clause in the lease agreement increases the team’s share of the remaining food and nonalcoholic concessions sales to 65 percent.

“There’s a fallback position that allows us to remain profitable moving forward,” Cain said.

The Portland Community Chamber also played a vocal role to resolve the recent impasse, with key leaders publicly urging reconciliation and saying the loss of the Pirates and their 38 home games long term would cost downtown business owners between $4 million and $5 million in annual economic activity.

Neal Pratt, chairman of the civic center board of trustees, has long argued that hockey represented a “break-even” venture for the arena, and noted that one of the civic center’s most successful years financially came during the year between when the former Maine Mariners hockey team left and the Pirates arrived. That gap year, 1992-93, the venue concentrated on big name musical acts such as Garth Brooks, KISS and Billy Joel.

On Tuesday, though, Pratt touted the hockey team’s return to Portland as “exciting.”

“We at the civic center are very pleased the Pirates are returning and delighted for the fans, the community and the businesses who will benefit,” he said.

The hockey team, which also reportedly considered building a new home arena in Saco, has suffered at the box office during its brief stint in Lewiston. The team averages only about 2,500 fans per game at the smaller 3,700-seat Colisee, compared with nearly 4,500 tickets sold per game last year at the 6,700-seat civic center.

The hockey team and civic center officials announced plans to return to the negotiating table in late December after Cain took over as the Pirates’ new majority owner and agreed to drop a lawsuit the team had filed in September against the venue.

The civic center is in the final phases of a $34 million renovation project supported loudly by Pirates officials and ultimately approved by county voters at the polls in 2011.

“We can’t wait for the puck to drop for the next game at the civic center,” Cain said Tuesday, noting there’s a possibility the team could play in Portland this spring if it reaches the playoffs.

To help replace the AHL Pirates’ presence in Lewiston, Cain said the organization plans to establish a strong presence at the Colisee with its Junior Pirates team. The Saco-based Junior Pirates play in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, with a series of teenage and youth teams playing under the franchise umbrella as well.

“I think it’s a good option for [Lewiston] for high-end hockey,” Cain said.

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