2 groups compete to bring hockey back to Portland

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PORTLAND — The Philadelphia-based company that manages the Cross Insurance Arena now leads the list of candidates that could bring pro ice hockey back to the city.

Spectra filed one of four responses to a request for proposals developed by the arena board of trustees early this year, and is considered the front runner, according to Mitchell Berkowitz, board chairman.

National Sports Services, of Cleveland, Tennessee, a company with extensive consulting experience in professional sports at the minor league levels, is the other primary contender.

“The strategic development committee headed by Joe Gray will initially look at Spectra, and National is a backup,” Berkowitz said March 9.

The RFP also drew responses from Steve Donner, who headed Maine Sports Enterprises, and Don Kirwan, who owns junior hockey and Federal Professional Hockey League teams. Donner is a former owner of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.

Berkowitz said the strategic development committee, which also includes City Manager Jon Jennings, Cumberland County Commissioner Sue Witonis and strategic development committee; is expected to work within a six-week to eight-week time span to develop a lease for the board of trustees to review.

Spectra and National are looking to bring an ECHL team to Portland, Berkowitz said. On March 8, Kirwan said he had been interested in bringing a FPHL team to the city. The league plays one rung lower than the ECHL, which is two steps below the National Hockey League.

The specific responses to the RFP will not be publicly released, Olmstead said in response to a March 2 Freedom of Access Act request from The Forecaster, but Berkowitz said the RFP and responses are the “basic point of start” for lease negotiations.

Berkowitz said March 2 he hoped the lease agreement could be in place by June, when the ECHL Board of Governors meets.

“It was not an easy decision – both of them have good reputations in the field, that is why we are going through the process,” Berkowitz said about working with Spectra and National.

Spectra was selected to manage the Cross Insurance Arena in 2015, almost a year after the $31 million renovation work was completed and the name changed from the Cumberland County Civic Center in 2014.

The company has its roots in professional hockey, as founder Ed Snider brought the NHL to Philadelphia with the Flyers 50 years ago. The company also owns the American Hockey League Philadelphia Phantoms and manages 125 venues throughout the country.

The Flyers were also the first parent club of the Maine Mariners, who began play at the former Civic Center in 1977.

According to its website, National has provided consulting, management or ownership for 21 professional and five junior hockey league teams in 20 years, while providing many of the same services to minor league baseball and indoor or “arena” football teams.

National has also analyzed markets for professional sports teams and assisted team buyers and sellers.

Portland has had two AHL teams, but may now be better suited for the 27-team ECHL because of lower operating costs and more nearby teams. The Mariners left Portland for Providence, Rhode Island, following the 1991-92 season. In 1993, the Pirates arrived after relocating from Baltimore.

Unable to agree on a new lease, at the former Civic Center, Pirates’ owners shifted the team to Lewiston for the 2013-14 season. The team returned to Portland for two seasons, then relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts at the end of the 2015-16 season.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The company managing Cross Insurance Arena leads the list of groups interested in returning professional ice hockey to Portland.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.