Area interest in professional ice hockey is at a peak.
The Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship run was very closely followed and celebrated. With the uncertainty caused by the current NBA work stoppage, the start of the NHL season will be in the spotlight.
Locally, the Portland Pirates have also aroused interest with their new affiliation with the Phoenix Coyotes.
The Cumberland County Civic Center opened in 1977 and the Maine Mariners ruled the Civic Center ice, winning Calder Cup championships in their first two seasons. They were affiliated with the Philadelphia Flyers for the first six years and then with the New Jersey Devils. In their first season with the Devils, 1983-84, the Mariners won their third Calder Cup. The Devils moved the team to Utica after four years, but the Boston Bruins filled the void with an AHL expansion team for the 1987-88 season. After the 1991-92 season, the Mariners left Portland to become the Providence Bruins. There was no hockey in Portland during the 1992 -93 season.
The Pirates arrived in Portland in time for the 1993-94 season. The transplanted Baltimore Skipjacks were the Washington Capitals’ affiliate and won the Calder Cup in that first season. Two years later, the Pirates made it back to the Calder Cup finals, losing 2-1 in Game 7.
It would be another decade before the Pirates would next advance beyond the second round. When the 1998-99 season rolled around, the Capitals shared their affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks.
After the 2004- 2005 season, the Capitals switched their affiliation to Hershey, Penn., and the Pirates welcomed the Anaheim Ducks. In the Ducks’ inaugural season (2005- 2006), the Pirates finished at the top of their division for the first time with a team record 114 points. They then advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 10 years. In the Duck’s third season (2007- 2008) the Pirates again made it to the Eastern Conference finals. After that season, the Ducks decided to move their affiliation to Des Moines, Iowa and the Buffalo Sabres became the Pirates’ NHL affiliate for the 2008- 2009 season. With Buffalo, the Pirates had strong regular seasons finishing with 101 and 102 points the past two years, their first ever back-to-back 100-point seasons. Although they always made the playoffs as the Buffalo affiliate (winning their second division title in 2010-11), they got only as far as the second round this past season. Like the Ducks, the Sabres partnership with the Pirates lasted three years and they have relocated to nearby Rochester, N.Y for the coming season.
In late June, the Pirates announced an agreement with the Phoenix Coyotes. They have retained Coach Ray Edwards, who has been the team’s skipper for the past two seasons. The parent Coyotes made the NHL playoffs last season, for a total of seven times in their 15 years since relocating from Winnipeg.
The American Hockey League will have a new division alignment for the 2011-2012 season. Each of the two 15-team conferences will now have three divisions (as in the NHL), instead of two. The division winners will receive the top three seeds in the conference playoffs with the other five slots going to the remaining teams with the most points. The first round will be a best-of-five series, all other rounds will be best-of-seven. Teams will be re-ordered after the first round so that the highest-remaining seed plays the lowest-remaining seed.
The Pirates will remain in the Atlantic Division with Manchester (Los Angeles Kings), Worcester (San Jose Sharks), Providence (Boston) and the new St. John’s Newfoundland team (Vancouver Canucks).
The new Pirates project to be a playoff contender. Using last year’s points, with the new conference alignment, the Pirates would finish third in the division and ninth in the conference, just one point out of the postseason. If they maintain their upward trend of the past three seasons, playoff contention is likely.
Last year in San Antonio, the Coyotes’ AHL team was seventh in attendance with an average of 6,411 per game, while the Pirates were 18th with an average of 4,655 (San Antonio’s arena has nearly twice the capacity of the Cumberland County Civic Center).
Area hockey fans expressed their views on the changes. Some noted that it would be easier to identify with a more proximate NHL team. If, for example, the New York Rangers or Islanders or New Jersey Devils were the affiliate, one could travel there more easily to watch former Pirates play at the top level.
Mike Clenott of Portland knows that the community has a good history of welcoming new teams to town.
“It won’t be the first time a Pacific Division team has affiliated with the Pirates,” he pointed out. “The Anaheim Ducks were well liked.”
Festus Day of Portland feels Pirates hockey is enjoyable no matter what their NHL affiliation.
“Unless it’s the (Boston) Bruins, it’s all the same,” Day said. “I go to the games for fun. The change in players isn’t going to impact the entertainment.”
Brent Marcott, the Pirates newly appointed Director of Communications said fans will enjoy “a whole new wave of great talent” on the ice.
Off the ice, Marcott and his colleagues are looking forward to unveiling new initiatives to enhance the fan experience. It all begins on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m., when the Pirates play their home opener.