Trustees of Cross Insurance Arena have been authorized to negotiate with two groups interested in bringing an ECHL pro hockey team to downtown Portland.
Mitch Berkowitz, chair of the arena’s board of trustees, said Wednesday that the board’s Strategic Development Committee hopes to work out a tentative lease agreement with one of the two groups in the next two months in advance of the ECHL’s board of governors meeting in June. For the ECHL to grant a franchise, any suitor would require a tentative lease agreement with a suitable arena.
The two groups are:
n National Sports Services of Topeka, Kansas. Its CEO is Bill Davidson, who has owned and operated several minor league hockey and baseball franchises. Davidson’s bio on the company’s website says he serves as a consultant to two ECHL franchises – California’s Stockton Thunder and Georgia’s Gwinnett Gladiators.
n Spectra, the management firm contracted to operate Cross Insurance Arena. Spectra is a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers have a history in Portland as the NHL affiliate of the American Hockey League’s Maine Mariners, which played at the downtown arena from 1977 to 1983.
Portland has been without pro hockey since the AHL’s Portland Pirates were sold last May and relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Since the arena opened in 1977 as the Cumberland County Civic Center, a minor league hockey team has been a main tenant in all but three winters. There was a gap in 1992-93 between the Maine Mariners and Portland Pirates. There was another gap in 2013-14 because of renovations, then a lease dispute that led to the Pirates playing all of their home games in Lewiston. The Pirates were unable to generate much fan interest in the two seasons after they returned from Lewiston, ranking near the bottom of the AHL in attendance.
The ECHL, which began in 1988 as the East Coast Hockey League with five teams in four states, has expanded to 27 teams in 21 states and one Canadian province. It is considered the third tier of professional hockey, below the NHL and AHL.
Having a lease in place by June is no guarantee that Portland could land an ECHL team for next winter. The ECHL already is working on its 2017-18 schedule and league spokesman Joe Babik said last week that “there will be no other additions other than Worcester and Jacksonville.”
The Worcester (Mass.) Railers are an expansion franchise. The Jacksonville Icemen relocated from Evansville, Indiana. The Alaska Aces, members of the ECHL for 15 years, will be in what Babik termed “voluntary suspension” for the 2017-18 season after announcing in February that it was no longer economically sustainable for the franchise to operate in Anchorage.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re not holding up any opportunities for next fall, but ultimately the ECHL will make that decision,” Berkowitz said.
Joe Gray, the retired city manager of Portland, is chair of the Strategic Development Committee.
The other committee members are Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, Sue Witonis and Dale Olmstead, the board’s contract compliance manager.
The arena’s board of trustees had put out a request for proposals earlier this winter, seeking possible investors interested in bringing a pro hockey team to Portland. Deadline for the proposals was Feb. 28.
In all, four parties submitted proposals. The other two, according to Olmstead, were:
n Steve Donner of Maine Sports Enterprises, LLC. Donner is a former owner of the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.
n Donald Kirnan of Dewitt, New York. Kirnan is founder of the Syracuse Stars Junior Hockey Club in upstate New York.