Lack of investors blunts pro hockey in Portland

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PORTLAND — The prospect of a winter beyond this one without professional hockey in the Cross Insurance Arena is becoming a reality.

The ECHL Board of Governors meets Jan. 18 in Glens Falls, New York. League spokesman Joe Babik said Jan. 6 the board does not have any applications for an expansion or a team relocation to Portland.

“It would be almost impossible for a team to happen (in Portland) for the 2017-18 season,” Babik said.

Falmouth resident Godfrey Wood, leader of an attempt to bring back minor league hockey, conceded Jan. 6 that getting a team for 2017-18 will not happen.

“I’m not planning on doing anything for next year,” Wood, the husband of Forecaster Publisher Karen Wood, said, adding he remains optimistic investors can be found for a team to begin play in the autumn of 2018.

On Monday, Mitchell Berkowitz, the former town manager in Gray and Bridgton who is chairman of the arena board of trustees, said the timing proved impractical after the departure of the American Hockey League Portland Pirates in May 2016.

“We will begin looking for new events at the Cross Insurance Arena,” Berkowitz said, while the board also develops a request for proposals for potential investors for a new team.

Berkowitz said there is no longer enough time to vet interested investors and possible ownership structures and an arena lease for next season.

The AHL Pirates began playing in the 1993-1994 season. The team played in Lewiston in the 2013-’14 season after lease negotiations broke down. In February 2014 the parties agreed on a five-year lease; majority owner Ron Cain sold to investors in Springfield, Massachusetts, after the 2015-’16 season.

Shortly after the move was announced, Wood and former Pirates player and General Manager Brad Church began trying to bring hockey back to Portland.

Wood, who with partner Tom Ebright brought the AHL Pirates to town from Baltimore to replace the Maine Mariners when that team moved to Providence, Rhode Island in 1992, said he remains intent on a creating a new Pirates team.

Church has stepped away from the effort, Wood said, but he is confident having one more year to organize can solidify an ownership group and allow the team to make a strong presence in the community.

“I think it is always better to have longer to set up in terms of sales,” he said. “There is definitely an appetite, a hardcore group of fans and sponsors.”

The nine-member arena board is also somewhat in flux, with five new members to be appointed this month.

Former Trustee Neal Pratt, Berkowitz, and Wood said some groundwork has been set, even though there have been no formal lease discussions between the board and any interested investors.

Pratt, whose term expired Dec. 31, 2016, called it a “good faith baseline … to let people know we are open for business.”

Wood said he found the general terms, which included a framework for possibly splitting concessions, “very workable and attractive for the team’s point of view and the county’s point of view.”

The ECHL, which plays one rung lower than the AHL, is seen as more viable because of lower operating and travel costs and a league effort to fill regional arenas left open by AHL franchise shifts.

Pratt and Berkowitz said the trustees want to ensure that, at worst, they break even with a team lease. Pratt said even though the Pirates missed attendance projections in the team’s final year in Portland, the arena still turned a $40,000 profit.

Wood said his business plan relies on a strong turnstile count as opposed to sales of tickets, which may go unused.

“The turnstile is what drives the other revenue,” he said.

Ultimately, Wood said he just wants a hockey team in town.

“I’ve had conversations with other groups,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence whoever comes forward will be a great owner.”

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

Godfrey Wood of Falmouth has shelved plans to bring a hockey team to Portland next fall, but remains confident one can begin play in the autumn of 2018.

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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.