The city of Springfield, MA, celebrated a surprisingly rapid return of an American Hockey League franchise to their city on Wednesday, but those cheers of joy were easily drowned out by the sounds of stunned disbelief and outrage that gripped their New England neighbors in Portland, ME.
In an abrupt and surprising move, the Portland Pirates announced they were being sold to a group of investors in Springfield and relocating to the city in Western Mass., which lost its previous AHL team, the Falcons, to Tuscon, AZ, just two weeks ago.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed Wednesday and requires AHL approval and an agreement with the Pirates’ parent club, the Florida Panthers.
“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. “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.”
The announcement, which caught not just Portland city officials, but even members of the organization off-guard, brings to an end a 23-year relationship between the Pirates and Portland, a move made all the more controversial after area taxpayers helped fund a $34 million renovation of Cross Insurance Arena in 2013. The building now exists without a major tenant.
“I’m very disappointed that they are leaving and that the city was left out of the conversation,” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said at a press conference at the Arena, where the Pirates debuted in 1993. “It is going to have a terrible impact on our local economy.”
So unexpected was the move, Strimling only learned of it when a reporter contacted him Wednesday afternoon as news of the move began breaking by Springfield media. Strimling said no one in the Pirates organization had offered prior notice of the impending sale.
“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.”
After the initial wave of media reaction on Wednesday, the team issued a statement confirming the sale.
“A letter of intent has been signed with an outside buyer to purchase and relocate the AHL franchise to a new city,” the statement said. “The details of the agreement were not disclosed and final sale is pending approval of the AHL Board of Governors and the Florida Panthers. All previously purchased season tickets for the 2016-2017 season will be refunded.”
According to the Portland Press Herald. The Pirates just completed the second year of a five-year lease with the county that contains provisions in the event the team breaks the agreement that limit the damages the arena can claim to $100,000.
Mitch Berkowitz, the chair of the board of trustees for county-owned arena, said an executive session of the board is scheduled for Thursday morning.
While civic leaders in Portland were left to pick up the pieces, the city of Springfield welcomed the news with open arms. Springfield, which has been home to an AHL team for the past 60 years and is also the home of the AHL’s league offices, lost the Falcons on April 20, when owner Charlie Pompea sold the franchise to the Arizona Coyotes, who are relocating the team to Tucson, as the AHL continues a successful migration to California and Arizona.
Two California teams – the San Diego Gulls and the Ontario Kings – were among the top four in average attendance in their inaugural 2015-16 seasons. By contrast, the Pirates and Falcons were the two worst teams in the AHL in average attendance this season.
Frank Fitzgerald, attorney for the investors’ group, would not identify the investors
“In the coming weeks, this group will continue to identify local investors and raise funds to ensure that professional hockey remains in this great city,” Fitzgerald told the Springfield Republican. “If all goes well, the team will be playing in Springfield this fall.”
In a bizarre twist, the Portland Press Herald reported Wednesday that Pompea, having just sold the Falcons, had emerged as a potential buyer to keep the Pirates in Portland:
Pirates general manager Eric Joyce, who has been part of the Panthers’ front office since 2013, said the NHL team was willing to accept a “significantly lower affiliation payment” in order to keep the team in Maine under independent ownership.
“Our objective was to stay in Portland,” he said Wednesday evening. “We felt at home up there. Guys are broken up about it.”
When a potential buyer that would keep the team in Portland emerged – Charlie Pompea, who sold the Falcons to the Arizona Coyotes – the Panthers offered to restructure the affiliation payment, Joyce said. It wasn’t clear Wednesday night what kept that deal from happening.
Joyce said he even spoke briefly with Panthers ownership about the possibility of buying the AHL franchise.
“We lose money in Florida,” Joyce said of the NHL team. “We just didn’t want to take on a second team that looked like it would lose a significant amount of money, too.”
Even players on the team reacted with shock and dismay, with goalie Mike McKenna telling the Press Herald, that the move was “a complete shock. Just the worst news I’ve ever gotten in my life.”