Professional ice hockey returning to Portland in 2018

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PORTLAND — A cross-country move will bring professional ice hockey back to the Cross Insurance Arena next year.

Bill O’Malley, director of marketing for the former Cumberland County Civic Center, announced Thursday that the Alaska Aces, an ECHL franchise in Anchorage, Alaska, will begin play in Portland in the 2018-2019 season.

The team will succeed the arena’s last hockey tenant, the American Hockey League Portland Pirates, which shifted to Springfield, Massachusetts, after the 2015-2016 season.

The ECHL, with 27 teams, plays one rung below the AHL and two below the National Hockey League.

The new team has not been renamed, but is owned by Comcast Spectacor and the NHL Philadelphia Flyers, according to a Comcast Spectacor press release. Comcast Spectacor also owns Spectra, which operates the Cross Insurance Arena.

The ECHL Board of Governors approved the sale and shift of the Aces at meetings in Las Vegas on June 13, according to a league press release.

“We are excited to bring ECHL hockey to Portland,” ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said the release. “The city has a long and rich hockey tradition. In addition, Comcast Spectacor has a history in the market and is an ideal partner to reintroduce professional hockey to southern Maine.”

Mitchell Berkowitz, chairman of the arena board of trustees, on Thursday said an initial three-year lease has been signed, with options for an additional 12 years.

“We are grateful to Comcast Spectacor for the work they are doing at Cross Insurance Arena and for bringing hockey back to Portland,” Berkowitz said. “This is an exciting time for the board of trustees, Cumberland County and hockey fans throughout the region.”

Comcast Spectacor was one of four groups to respond to a request for proposals to return a team to the arena. Spectra is also the parent company of the Flyers, and former Flyers player Paul Holmgren will serve as the team’s governor.

The new team will play 36 regular-season home games, more if it qualifies for postseason play.

Danny Briere, who also played for the Flyers, will oversee daily team operations, although the team is not expected to be a minor league affiliate of the Flyers.

Comcast Spectacor spokesman Tim Buckman said the Flyers have had management roles in American Hockey League teams in Hartford, Connecticut, and one that formerly played in Philadelphia. The NHL team will also continue its affiliation with the Reading, Pennsylvania, Royals of the ECHL.

“Most of the players will be under contract to the team itself, and will be recruited and signed by the team’s own hockey operations staff,” O’Malley added.

The new team continues a 40-year-old hockey connection between Portland and Philadelphia. The original Maine Mariners of the AHL were owned by Comcast Spectacor and affiliated with the Flyers until 1983. That team moved to Providence, Rhode Island, following the 1991-1992 season.

In 1993, investors including Tom Ebright and Godfrey Wood, husband of Forecaster publisher Karen Wood, bought and moved the AHL Baltimore Skipjacks to the city. The team played in the Cumberland County Civic Center through the 2013-2014 season, when it moved to Lewiston for a season.

In February 2014, the team signed a five-year lease to play at the renovated arena, which was renamed the Cross Insurance Arena. Shortly after the 2016 season, the owners, led by Ron Cain, sold the team to investors in Springfield.

Establishment of the Portland team continues a trend for the ECHL, which has shifted teams to northern New England to replace AHL clubs that have left Manchester, New Hampshire, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

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

The ECHL has 27 teams. Two of them – in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Worcester, Massachusetts – could be natural rivals for the team that will move to Portland in 2018 from Alaska.

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.