4 investor groups hope to bring hockey back to Portland

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PORTLAND — Cross Insurance Arena trustees expect to be ready this week to move forward on proposals to bring professional ice hockey back to the city.

Mitchell Berkowitz, chairman of the arena board of trustees, said March 2 the full board would review proposals from unidentified parties in executive session after they had been vetted and ranked Monday by a strategic development committee.

Berkowitz said he hoped a decision on a group would be made in time for the June meeting of the board of governors of the ECHL hockey league.

“We do not believe we are in a position to award a contract,” Berkowitz said. “I believe it would be in our best interest to have some kind of preference or decision before the June meeting.”

The strategic development committee consists of City Manager Jon Jennings, former City Manager Joe Gray, Cumberland County Commissioner Sue Witonis and Dale Olmstead, the former Freeport Town Manager who now serves as contract compliance manager for the Cumberland County Recreation District.

Berkowitz declined to identify the investors who responded to a request for proposals trustees approved earlier this year, citing proprietary information contained in the approvals. Olmstead said March 3 he would respond by Thursday, March 9, to a Freedom of Access Act request from The Forecaster for copies of the proposals.

There were seven requests for the RFP, Berkowitz said.

The ECHL is the minor league playing one rung below the American Hockey League. The league has been seen as the best venue for a new team to replace the AHL Pirates, who moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, after the 2015-2016 season.

Godfrey Wood, who helped bring the Pirates to Portland in 1993 and was among the first to lead an effort to return hockey to Portland after the Pirates moved last spring, requested an RFP, but did not return it.

Wood, who had partnered with former Pirates player and General Manager Brad Church after the Pirates were sold and moved, said the RFP was a good one.

“I thought it was fine, they are looking for the right information and the goal is to get a lease that works for the arena and allows a team to be successful on a long term basis,” he said.

Ike Richman, spokesman for Comcast Spectracor, which manages Cross Insurance Arena operations through its Spectra division, declined comment on whether the company submitted a proposal.

Berkowitz said he hoped negotiations might occur with more than one group of investors, and held out hope a team could be playing at the arena as soon as this fall.

“That is our preference, to bring in someone earlier than later,” he said, “but not sacrificing quality for longevity, multiple years stability and having (the) right business model that fits.”

The ECHL business model has been viewed as a better fit because teams are not as dependent on affiliations with the National Hockey League.

The ECHL, which fields 27 teams across the country, is making its way into New England to replace AHL teams that have shifted west. A team in Manchester, New Hampshire, began play this season, and a Worcester, Massachusetts, team begins play next year. The league also fields teams in upstate New York, making bus travel feasible for a Portland team.

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

Cross Insurance Arena trustees received four responses from 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.