Could professional hockey be returning to the City Of Portland? Since the departure of the AHL’s Pirates, there has been an unfilled void during this season, but that void could soon be filled. The Cross Insurance Arena Board Of Trustees will be accepting proposals for an ECHL team until Tuesday, February 28th. It will allow the trustees to review each proposal and to determine if it is valid to the bidding process to present to the Board Of Trustees at a meeting to be held on Wednesday, March 8th.

Mitchell Berkowitz is a board member at the Cross Insurance Arena. He told The Sin Bin that it has been directed upon the Board Of Trustees at the Cross Insurance Arena to attempt to fill in the winter months with a hockey league.  The Board Of Trustees have also learned that it is better fit to host an ECHL franchise. They were never presented with an ECHL proposal however they are learning about the ECHL business models and the aspects that make it different.

“We’ve learned financially, its probably more reasonable for our market to sustain an ECHL team. For their business model, I know they have salary caps and they are also looking at filling in voids for their ECHL league season and we think that Portland is probably a very good region for them to have an ECHL team,” Berkowitz said.

If Portland was to join the ECHL, they would be the third team here in New England to play in the league.  While in the AHL, Portland did struggle in regards to attendance at times, Burkowitz believes the Cross Insurance Arena can be the venue of choice for a successful ECHL team. It may reflect in the ticket prices too where it will help the customers that come to the arena to watch the team play. Burkowitz believes that the people in Portland and the surrounding communities enjoy the game of hockey, and also believes they will enjoy the ECHL style of play.

The Board Of Trustees will explore every legitimate opportunity to see if its good for the people who are playing the game, as well as the people who want to watch the game.

“I think for us at this early stage, what we’re going to do if we can’t get hockey may be premature. Other than the fact that we are opportunists, we are also trying to operate as a business, and you just never shut the doors for the sake of shutting the doors. If there is an opportunity, we want to explore it,” Berkowitz added.

The question is if hockey is designated for Portland and if there is an existing team will they able to continue to play their schedule or will the city of Portland have to wait and go dark for another season. It does remain to be seen. There is hope for a remote possibility that when they move through the RFP (Request For Proposals) process, it will happen expeditiously. There is also hope to be in a position to work with the an ECHL team and have them operate next fall, but there is also that strong possibility that they may have missed a deadline and may have to wait until the 2018-19 season.

The Board Of Trustees have a mindset that a short-term, one-year fix is not a good fix. Burkowitz believes that they owe it to the taxpayers, but also to the fans, to try to have a consistent, stable schedule for several years out. They would like to look at and explore a potential ECHL proposal with the possibility of a multiple year agreement.

Hockey has been played at the Cross Insurance Arena during the year, with college and high school teams currently filling the gaps left by the departure of professional hockey. The Board Of Trustees are also working with various colleges, as well as the high schools in the region for their practices, games, and potential to have their final tournaments.

While the arena used to have 38 dates to fill when the Pirates played in the AHL, it has been a struggle to fill in those dates. The arena did have a country music concert recently as well as other events. They will continue to look at the broad spectrum of events and activities they can bring into the arena by satisfying the customers, turning on the lights, and making it a successful venue.

Ron Cain sold the Portland Pirates American Hockey League franchise to a group of local investors in Springfield, MA to become the Springfield Thunderbirds after the 2015-16 season. It left the fans in Portland and the surrounding communities in shock and heartbreak. The Board was in communication with Cain on a frequent basis. Cain was upfront with the Board in regards to his desire to sell the Pirates, but was willing to do so at a discount if the team could remain in Portland. The Board took Cain at his word. They thought it was exactly what he was attempting to do.

When the negotiations took place, the Board knew going to the table that the potential money offered for the team would be tough for them to match, and as it turned out, they were correct. With Springfield not having a team, they had the motivation to whatever it took to bring hockey to their city, and the Board ended up getting outbid. They were too many other resources in play with what Springfield proposed.

Cain is a businessman. He did not pick up in the middle of the night and leave town under the cover of darkness. He was communicative with the Board and vice versa in an effort to remain in Portland, even though he might sell his majority ownership at some point down the road. Was it a surprise to the Board? Yes and no, because they knew what they we’re facing and they kept trying to keep the team here.

Berkowitz believes he and the Board have learned a lot from this, and that’s why they have started looking at an ECHL structure instead of higher up the professional hockey ladder.

The arena did complete renovations adding better seats, luxury suites, and lounges which create a better experience for visitors attending the arena. They also have a better basketball floor system that can be installed and disassembled quickly which allows a shorter turnaround time between events. The locker rooms were also renovated to meet better demands for today’s hockey teams.

Berkowitz does believe that the ECHL wants to have a better presence here in the Northeast. A solid, dependable, successful anchor tenant could set up for future successes in other avenues. Hopefully we’ll see that come to fruition in the near future in the City of Portland.


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