Portland, ME- Hockey could be coming back to Portland, as the Pirates could be coming to the ECHL for the 2017-2018 season. The Pirates were in the American Hockey League for 23 years until the team was sold after the 2015-16 season, and will be moving to Springfield, Massachusetts once the AHL Board Of Governors votes on the approval of the sale. (Chief Operating Officer) Brad Church and (former team President and General Manager) W. Godfrey Wood talked about the idea about an ECHL team coming to the City Of Portland.
“Here in Portland, we’ve been through different things. Lease disputes, we left the market and came back into the market. As well as things were going, our revenues just couldn’t keep pace with the climbing expenses. Ownership made a decision, a business decision that I think most businessmen would make and decided to sell the franchise. There is some disappointment obviously for me. The human element of my staff. People have worked hard for me for couple years. It’s not an easy time,” Church said.
After the Pirates were sold, Church received a call from Wood who is the former President and General Manager of the Pirates when they first came to the City Of Portland in 1993. Wood immediately asked Church if he would be interested in getting an ECHL expansion in Portland. They talked about it and met a couple times. They looked over the numbers and reviewed the business model. “ We really feel like with everything that’s going on in the ECHL as far as their landscape, moving into Manchester and Worcester, looking at their cost against operating and their expense base, we feel that it’s the right fit for this market right now and it’s a great opportunity to bring a really good product back to the fans of Portland that have enjoyed hockey for the last 23 years,” Church said.
Church believes the American Hockey League business model has changed as the cost of running an AHL franchise has escalated in amount and has also escalated very quickly. According to Church, NHL affiliation fees in the American Hockey League are pretty high and the team would have to get a favorable lease to offset the expense base. Church feels the Board Of Trustees at the building have been great to work with. They’re willing to move for them and make things work but the affiliation fee was a big part of the expense base that they could not keep up with regarding the revenue. “Two different operating models that I think the East Coast League (ECHL) expense base is much more friendly to sustainability here in Portland and that’s what exactly were looking for. Godfrey (Wood) and I want to be here for another 23 years and I think this model allows us to build a business that can do that and the product that our market will enjoy and support. It’s exciting times. As disappointed as we were 10 days ago. I think we’re looking forward to a bright future for Portland hockey,” Church stated.
All parties want this to happen and are supporting what’s going on which has helped move the process along quite quickly. Those parties being the Commissioner of the League Brian McKenna, as well as the Board Of Trustees at the building. They have been making themselves available when needed and discussions are ongoing. It has been a good team effort, the collaboration has been strong to get this team going here in Portland, and Church is confident it will continue.
With the expense base being much lower in the ECHL. There will be lower ticket prices in all categories. It will allow to introduce ticket prices for Youth, Students, Seniors, and Military Veterans at a much lower rate. With the lower ticket prices, it won’t hold them to much on the expense so that they could spend a little more money on promotions and other aspects inside the Cross Insurance Arena during the games to elevate the fan experience. “We’re excited to offer this type of product at a much more family-friendly price point and we feel as a result that we will have more people in the building enjoying the great hockey on the ice but enjoying a good fan experience.” Church Said
Church felt that the Manchester/Portland Rivalry was a good rivalry and Church felt for years Worcester was the same. Where Church saw the boost and will see the boost is when fans from Manchester and Worcester drive up to Portland to watch a game in their building, just as the Portland fans will travel to those cities in return. The Worcester Railers will join the ECHL in the 2017-2018 season. The Manchester Monarchs just finished their first season in the ECHL. Church believes all three markets will get to enjoy having their fans in each building. Church imagines there will be a boost and with the amount of potential match-ups against Manchester and Worcester, he is excited to spark up some strong rivalries again as well.
Most ECHL teams have a NHL and AHL affiliation. Church wouldn’t mind if the right partner came along for an NHL and AHL affiliation for his team here in Portland. “I think if the partner is right we’ll obviously look at it. Whether you’re affiliated or not, a huge percentage of your roster are your own guys. The guys who you are out scouting, recruiting, bringing in to build your team. I guess our hope is to have a good partner that is willing to help us with some prospects, and obviously on the other end we want to offer a development situation for these particular prospects. I think it’s a bit of give and take. I think we’re in a good location. I think we have great facilities. We will be putting a strong staff in place. Our goal in time is to find the right affiliate partner and hope to be apart of the development ladder through whatever that NHL team may be,” Church said.
Church’s goal is to get the approval for the ECHL expansion when he will be in Las Vegas on Tuesday June 21st for the annual ECHL League Meetings. He knows it is a process but he is already lining up the meetings that he needs locally. He has arranged the meeting with the County regarding the lease of the buildling. He also has a meeting with the City Manager this week to discuss some support from the City of Portland. “Once we get all those ducks in a row, we’ll begin to gather the group of investors that are interested in jumping on board. If everything keeps up at a real good pace, our goal is to get to Vegas and get approved,” Church stated.
Church thinks locally there is a lot of excitement about an ECHL team coming into Portland for 2017-2018 season, and there has been a lot of positive feedback. Church wants to make sure he does this right and once it gets done and the plans are in place, he feels that there will be local support not only from the ownership but also corporately through businesses, schools, and different programs in the area. He believes that the buzz with a hockey team coming to Portland will be contagious and thinks Pirates hockey will have a positive impact on the community.
The New England region has always been a strong market for hockey with the AHL and Hockey East Conference in the NCAA. New England last season had 5 teams in the American Hockey League alone. Portland struggled in regards to attendance last season in the AHL. Church thinks it’s a combination of things that caused this, and he’s trying to fix it. Ticket prices were an issue and that was the most common feedback from fans. With a more sustainable expense base, Church can bring the ticket prices down. He thinks the other thing will be the connectivity with the fans. At the ECHL level, they can control the rosters and they have a little more freedom to do more in the community with the players. Back when the Pirates had the most success, the players were constantly out and visible in the community. They would be out visiting businesses, doing appearances at a multitude of locations, post game autographs, post game skates and there was a real connection between the fan base and the players themselves. Church’s goal is to reintroduce that and make sure that the fans are apart of this entire process. He thinks, in turn, it will lead more support inside the arena. He thinks a better price plan on tickets and a stronger connectivity through the players will help boost numbers in the building and be a win-win for everybody in the community.
Most recently, Portland approximately had 600 season ticket holders. Church wants to grow off of that when he heads into the ECHL. With the lower ticket prices, he thinks he can achieve a higher season ticket base whether it’s full-season, half-season, or partial plans. He thinks it will all be related to price point and the ECHL schedule does come out early (it has already been released for the 2016-17 season) so people can see when Portland is going to be playing.
The Cross Insurance Arena in Portland recently went through 34 million dollars worth of renovations upgrading the concourse, concessions, bathrooms, and entrances, as well as all new seating in the building. “It is a building with a lot of character that goes back to the 70’s and I think they did a good job of really making it more modern, but not sacrificing any of the character that’s inside there. It’s a real good venue to watch a game. It’s a good atmosphere when you get some people in there. I think this brand of hockey is going to bring back buzz and excitement inside the rink every night,” Church said.
While fans in Portland will have to wait a year for professional hockey to return, Church is hoping to see some kind of hockey at the Cross Insurance Arena this season. It would be up to the building if they wanted to have it. “I hope so. I would love to be a part of anything that goes on like that. Hockey is a big part of the Portland culture especially in the winter time. Even a little bit will certainly put people’s hockey fever a little at ease. All the more reason to build up that anticipation for a great return in 2017-2018,” Church said.
Church feels he had seen a lot of special players come through Portland to play. Church himself played for the Portland Pirates after he was drafted by the Washington Capitals. He was teammates with former NHL player Andrew Brunette. He remembers a particular year all year long when they were battling with the Hartford Wolf Pack for first place along the stretch down into the playoff run.
Church’s best memory of playing for Portland was his teammates. He played with so many great players, so many great people. His coaches in Portland were staples in the hockey community such as Barry Trotz, Bryan Trottier, and Glen Hanlon. Being a 19 year-old kid, it could have been a scary world out there for Church, but the people of Portland and the families around that he was able to meet made it feel like home to him, making the transition that much easier. He has had great memories of playing in Portland and he wants to continue making great memories, all while being a part of the community.
Staying in the Portland area is important to him. His roots in Portland and Maine have all been grounded by this team. He met his wife Kristin and they have 4 children Luke, Dean, Weston, and Finley. Portland is home to Church and his family. If it wasn’t for the team and community, Church feels there is a lot of things in his life he would not have. It drives his passion to keep professional hockey in the City of Portland.