With three shutouts in five games heading into the weekend, Mike McKenna is one of the hottest goaltenders in the American Hockey League.

As a player returning to the Portland Pirates after an absence of six years, he also remembers performing in front of large crowds in downtown Portland on a regular basis.

“You get anything above 4,000 in here and this place is really loud,” McKenna said following Wednesday night’s 3-0 victory over Binghamton at the refurbished Cross Insurance Arena, formerly known as the Cumberland County Civic Center. “It rocks.”

The building wasn’t rocking that evening, however. The announced attendance: 1,485.

Following lengthy and contentious lease negotiations resulting in a self-imposed exile to Lewiston last season, the Pirates are back in Portland with a better team and a renewed focus on community involvement. Their five-game winning streak was snapped Friday, but the Pirates are solidly in second place in the five-team Atlantic Division. They have won 13 of their 19 home games.

Even so, they are last among the 30 AHL clubs in attendance midway through their home schedule. The Pirates’ average attendance is 2,787 – slightly more than 40 percent of capacity at the 6,733-seat arena.

“When you have a drastic upheaval like that, it takes time to build a fan base back,” McKenna said of the year in Lewiston. “Our part is to try to win as many games as we can to create a positive buzz and to try to do everything in the community we can to establish ourselves and show everybody, ‘Hey, we’re back! We’re here.’ ”

Pirates attendance is up nearly 600 fans per game over last year’s at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, where the team played during the civic center’s $35 million renovation and remained because of the lease dispute.

But in the franchise’s previous 14 seasons in Portland, the average attendance was never less 4,000 – the figure Ron Cain, the Pirates new majority owner, cited last spring as a benchmark in order to have a viable franchise.

“We’d obviously love to see more people in the building,” said Brad Church, the team’s chief operating officer and a former Pirate player. “Like any minor league sports team, it’s always great not only for the business but for the performance of the team to have the building full.”

In an effort to attract more fans, the Pirates have recently offered deals that include a “buy one ticket, get one half off” promotion and, throughout this month, an $80 package geared toward families that includes four seats, a $25 concession voucher and a $10 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card.


Pete Cutler of Freeport and his wife, MaryAnne, have been to several Pirates games this season. They’ve been following the team since the franchise moved to Portland from Baltimore and immediately won the 1994 Calder Cup.

“I do see a competent team,” said Cutler, 72. “Last year, to me, their heart wasn’t in it. You could see that. This year is different.”

Cutler said he wishes the franchise had not done away with a flexible ticket package that allowed him to purchase seats for 18 games and use them when he wanted, rather than having to commit to specific dates. (He also had hoped the renovation would result in more leg room: “At my age, to have my knees jacked up under my chin is not very pleasant come the third period.”)

Still, he’s optimistic about the future of professional hockey in Portland and praised the work of Church, the former player turned team executive. Church said he is encouraged about the long-term health of the franchise, whose affiliation with the Arizona Coyotes of the National Hockey League runs through this season. The team has four years remaining beyond this winter on a lease to play at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I just dove into some data and we’re 17 percent ahead, in terms of season tickets and group tickets, of where we were in (2012-13),” Church said early last week. “That’s for tickets sold.”

Church said one reason for this season’s low numbers is that the new ownership is reporting attendance figures based on tickets sold, rather than those printed and distributed to groups for little or no cost, a practice known as “papering the house.”

In the team’s most recent season in Portland, 2012-13, “there was an average of 1,900 comp tickets given out per night,” Church said. “So well over 70,000 (of the season attendance total of nearly 169,000) were given away.”

Jason Chaimovitch, the AHL vice president for communications, said the league has no hard-and-fast rule on reporting attendance figures.

“For the most part, our teams announce tickets that are distributed for games,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily consistent.”


Brian Petrovek, the Pirates managing owner for 14 years until resigning last spring after Cain took over, declined to comment on past attendance practices without having the specific data in front of him.

Reached by phone in his new office as president of the AHL Adirondack Flames, Petrovek did say that any distribution of complimentary tickets was not done on a consistent basis.

“Were we in the business of trying to get more people into games,” he said, “in the hopes that they would have a good experience and want to return? Yes.”

Minor league sports teams, much like any performers in show business, try to balance giving value to those who purchase tickets while also drawing large audiences to achieve a better atmosphere and experience. Under terms of the new lease, the Pirates also receive 57.5 percent of concession revenue, so more fans buying food and drink adds to the bottom line.

“Like any viable business, you can’t just give your product away,” Church said. “We feel that we’ve priced our ticket affordably, to come in and watch world-class hockey live and in person for a great price.”

The two biggest draws this season have been Opening Night (5,601 saw a 3-2 victory over Providence, the top farm club of the Boston Bruins) and New Year’s Eve, when a crowd of 4,686 saw a 3-1 victory over Hartford followed by an indoor fireworks display.

“That was the best crowd we’ve had all year,” veteran defense- man Dylan Reese said of the New Year’s Eve game. “It was loud. We can draw some momentum, some energy from that.”

“It’s just a way better atmosphere when you’ve got a bunch of people in the stands,” said Pirates Coach Ray Edwards, who also serves as the team’s general manager. “When there’s nobody in the building it’s just dead. It’s quiet. You have to manufacture your own energy.”


After every home game this season, win or lose, the Pirates gather near center ice and raise their sticks in salute to the fans, a gesture usually reserved for the final game of the season.

“That’s really cool,” said Phil Willett, 25, of Windsor, in his fifth year as a season ticket holder. “I’d only seen that maybe three or four times before.”

Willett is one of 24 fans who participate in a Pirates-only fantasy league that awards points for goals, assists and penalties and forms the core of Portland’s jersey-wearing, flag-waving fan base.

“There’s quite a few loyal fans that, win or lose, they’re going to be there every game,” Willett said.

The challenge is to attract more casual fans who may have drifted away during the last winter’s temporary relocation and may need a reason to return.

“I think a lot of it is cyclical with winning,” said Reese, the defenseman who played at Harvard and saw NHL action with the Islanders and Penguins. “Now we’re playing good hockey and we’re winning. If we can keep that up, hopefully the attendance will continue to grow and stay up.”

Last week, Reese and McKen- na were among a handful of Pirates who visited the Maine State Ballet. They’ve also done community appearances at elementary schools, the Salvation Army and the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.

“You do your best job with that, and hopefully it correlates (to increased support for the team),” McKenna said. “I get a kick out of those things. Call me a geek or whatever, but I think they’re fun to do.”

Cutler, the man from Freeport, said the engaging personalities of former Pirates such as Kevin Kaminski, Frank Bialowas and Trent Whitfield (now a Pirates assistant coach) are what hooked him on the team. He mentioned Reese and veteran center Alexandre Bolduc as current players he enjoys watching.

“I think if they continue to do reasonably well they’re going to get the fan base back,” Cutler said. “Earlier in the year, they were vying for (fans’) attention with high school football and other things going on. The second half is really going to tell the story – that’s going to dictate how this goes.”

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