Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Shuffle Continues

Yesterday, Peter posed the question of how well the Springfield Falcons will do if their announced move to Tucson, Arizona is approved by the AHL Board of Directors. Today, another AHL bombshell dropped when the Portland Pirates - a week after their playoff run ended - announced that they'll be abandoning their home of Portland, Maine for the greener pastures of Springfield, Massachusetts! In other words, the Falcons-to-Tucson move is all but guaranteed at this point, and the Pirates will leave Maine for Massachusetts for the start of next season.

Wow. I'm pretty sure no one saw that move coming.

"I have been informed that a broad-based local investor group has signed a letter of intent to purchase the Portland Pirates," Springfield mayor Dominic J. Sarno said in a statement today. "While we understand there are still some hurdles to overcome, we are encouraged by this news and hopeful that professional hockey will be back in Springfield this upcoming season."

I'm not sure how Springfield, which is the home of the AHL offices, continually finds itself with an AHL team after franchises decide to part ways with the city, but the Pirates will be moving to the Massachusetts city if Mayor Sarno is to be believed.

"I'm very disappointed that they are leaving and that the city was left out of the conversation," Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said during an impromptu news conference at Cross Insurance Arena late on Wednesday afternoon. "It is going to have a terrible impact on our local economy."

While the economy won't tank after the Pirates leave - there's a ton of evidence proving otherwise - the blow to the city's civic pride will be huge. Portland was very proud of its Pirates, and the city was on the map when it came to being a hockey town.

"That's a complete shock," Mike McKenna, the winningest goaltender in Pirates' history, told reporters. "Just the worst news I’ve ever gotten in my life."

The biggest kick-in-the-face comes to taxpayers in Portland as they funded a $34 million renovation to Cross Insurance Arena in 2013 for the Pirates. The lease contract that the Pirates held with the city, however, allowed them to escape the lease on a penalty of just $100,000. In other words, the Portland community won't even get 0.01% of their investment into the arena back with the team paying the penalty to leave the newly-renovated building.

"Tens of millions of dollars went into that facility," Strimling said. "When taxpayers put that much money into a project we should have at least been called to the table."

While the Pirates have struggled to put fans in seats in the last few seasons, the move to Springfield becomes even more curious when one looks at the attendance numbers from this year. Portland finished 30th out of 30 teams for attendance in 2014-15 (2963 fans per game) and 29th in 2015-16 (3363). The only team worse than Portland in terms of attendance this season? Springfield. And the numbers in Springfield are trending the wrong way as well.

Pirates owner Ron Cain had gone on record in the summer of 2014 stating that the Pirates needed to draw 4000 fans per game to break even. The numbers in 2014-15 were disappointing, but they added some 400 fans per game this season in a playoff year. With the Pirates playing better over the last season, that could have transformed into additional ticket sales for the team, possibly breaking the 4000 fans-per-game mark that Cain identified.

Now, we'll never know if that could have happened.

Perhaps one of the strangest parts of this story is that the Portland Press Herald reported that Pirates staff was working normally throughout the day without any knowledge of this impending sale. Worse yet, the Pirates had signed an affiliate agreement with the NHL's Florida Panthers in March 2015 that would guarantee the Panthers and Pirates would work together through the 2018-19 season. Instead, the Panthers were also caught off-guard by this announcement, issuing a statement of the sale.

This is just an ugly situation from top to bottom that seems to have been orchestrated by owner Ron Cain without anyone's knowledge. Not surprisingly, Glenn Jordan of the Portland Press Herald tried to reach Cain, but "Cain did not return phone calls from the Press Herald seeking comment on Wednesday."

Congratulations to the city of Springfield, Massachusetts for gaining another AHL team after potentially and most likely losing one at the upcoming AHL Board of Directors meeting. Congratulations to Ron Cain on making his money back with the sale of the team.

I feel for the staff and fans of the Portland Pirates in this situation. You deserve better, especially after having a solid team this season. I don't blame you if you feel some anger towards Ron Cain because I'm a little bothered by his actions and I live nowhere near Portland. If there is an ownership group in your city, look to the ECHL for the next opportunity. I can almost bet the ECHL will be a good fit for Portland with less heartbreak in the end.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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