Former Pirates owner, player plan new pro hockey team in Portland

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PORTLAND — The original managing general partner of the Portland Pirates hockey team and a former Pirates player hope to bring a new team to the city.

“Brad Church and I are partnering on bringing a team back. We are working on a business plan to form a small group of investors to make this happen,” Falmouth resident Godfrey Wood said Monday.

He said the new team would be called the Pirates, and incorporate the Pirates’ original logo and mascot.

Wood’s announcement came a day before the American Hockey League board of governors considered the sale of the Pirates to a group that would move the franchise to Springfield, Massachusetts. A vote on the sale and move is expected within two weeks.

Wood brought the Pirates to Portland in 1993 with partner Tom Ebright. Church, now the Pirates’ chief operating officer, played six seasons for the team, beginning in 1996. He was inducted into the Pirate’s Hall of Fame in 2012.

“I can’t even explain how thrilled I am to work with Godfrey, put this team together and make it happen,” Church said Monday.

Wood said he, Church and other partners hope to have an ECHL team play home games at the Cross Insurance Arena beginning in fall 2017. Formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League, the ECHL operates at one rung below the AHL in minor-league hockey.

Wood and Church said the ECHL offers a better business model for controlling operating costs and player contracts.

The sudden announcement of the Pirates’ departure stunned Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling on May 4.

“I don’t know if we could have done anything,” Strimling said, “but we should have heard about it a couple of weeks ago.”

Mitchell Berkowitz, chairman of the arena board of trustees, said May 6 he had been approached by Pirates Chief Executive Officer Ron Cain a few weeks ago about possible amendments to the Pirates’ five-year lease, signed in 2014, to help the team stay in Portland.

Berkowitz said the events leading to the sale moved quickly.

“We were dealing with a very narrow time frame, and when the time frame moved on us, we lost a week of opportunity,” he said.

He declined to discuss financial details beyond those in the lease, because finances are considered proprietary information that could affect future lease agreements.

“The information is not released because it gives away the competitive edge,” he said.

Strimling criticized the departure in light of $34 million in renovations to the arena that were completed in 2014, funded by bonds issued by Cumberland County.

In the 2013-2014 season, while the former Cumberland County Civic Center was being renovated, the Pirates played in Lewiston. When the new lease was signed, Cain replaced Brian Petrovek as the team’s managing officer.

Wood empathized with Cain about the sale.

“Ron is a stand-up guy who made a business decision anyone would have made based on how things went here,” he said.

Attendance in Portland rebounded in 2014-2015 from the year the Pirates played in Lewiston, but still averaged a league-worst 2,185 per game; the 2015-2016 average of 3,363 per game was 29th in a league of 30 teams. In comparison, the 1993-1994 Pirates team that won the AHL championship team averaged 5,872 fans per game, third in the league.

Berkowitz said the team’s departure has the arena board of trustees – created by state law more than 40 years ago, and independent of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners – evaluating the best uses for the building.

The lease with the Pirates contained a $100,000 escape clause Strimling called inadequate because of the expense of renovations, but Berkowitz said upgrading the arena was not just about the Pirates.

“We had an aging building that needed to be brought up to standards,” he said.

The renovations to seating areas and locker rooms were approved in a 2011 Cumberland County referendum. The debt service is paid by county taxpayers, as are any operating deficits at the arena, Berkowitz said.

Wood is executive director of Habitat of Humanity of Greater Portland, and the husband of Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster. He was CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce when voters approved the bonds, and said he supported the upgrades then and still does now.

“We supported the renovation as important to the economy and community,” he said.

Church said an ECHL team will not have as direct an affiliation to a National Hockey League team as the departing Pirates do with the Florida Panthers, but he said fans can expect great hockey to go with a family friendly approach.

The hockey ice scape has changed since Wood and Ebright brought the Baltimore Skipjacks to Portland in 1993, filling a void left when the Maine Mariners moved to Providence, Rhode Island, after the 1991-1992 season.

The Pirates were one of 16 AHL teams when they won the Calder Cup championship in their first season. By 2002, the AHL had merged with the International Hockey League and 27 teams were on the ice.

Last season, five AHL teams shifted, all heading to California. In the last several years, teams in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire, relocated. The Pirates are moving to Springfield to replace the Springfield Falcons, a team on its way to Arizona for next season.

The ECHL has 28 teams extending to Alaska, but with teams coming to Worcester and Manchester, Portland becomes a good fit, Church said.

“We can get some really good rivalries going again,” he said.

Add to that an approach to drawing fans that will include reduced ticket prices, special prices for children and senior citizens, more on-ice events during intermissions, and renewed community involvement from players, Wood and Church promised.

The team will also have more control over its roster because it will not be as closely affiliated with an NHL parent team.

“We will be bringing back the fast, exciting physical style of hockey to keep fans engaged,” Church said. “We want to bring back the days of when families and children were filling the arena.”

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

Former Portland Pirates Managing General Partner Godfrey Wood and Brad Church, chief operating officer of the current team, hope to bring a new hockey team to the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland for the 2017-2018 season.

Godfrey Wood

Brad Church

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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.