PORTLAND, M.E. – It’s hard to believe that nearly an entire hockey season has passed without the Portland Pirates, the beloved former American Hockey League team sold and relocated last spring, occupying the Cross Insurance Arena.
“The day it was announced, I was actually calling to make a large payment for my 2016-17 season tickets,” said Lisa Mogilka, former Pirates season ticket holder. “When I had called multiple times with no answer, I had a nervous feeling.”
Moments later, Mogilka saw the shocking news on Facebook that the Pirates had been sold to a new ownership group, which had intentions of relocating the franchise to Springfield, Massachusetts.
“My first reaction was to laugh. I thought it was a joke,” Mogilka said. “When more information started to come forward, I started to panic.”
Mogilka, who discovered the Pirates during her time as an Elementary Education student at the University of Maine: Machias, used to make 10-hour round trips every game day from the northern part of the state, just to see her team take the ice.
“I cried. The Portland Pirates were my rock,” said Mogilka, who found solace in her seat in Section X. “They gave me something to root for when I couldn’t root for myself.”
Mogilka’s feelings were mutual within the rest of the Pirates community, including long-time season ticket holders and relatively new ones, as many fans voiced their frustrations.
“I wanted nothing to do with the Springfield organization, but eventually I went to a game,” Mogilka explained. “There are still some who are refusing to even visit Springfield in protest of the sale.”
For Mogilka and thousands of other fans, the news not only devastated them last spring, but when October 2016 rolled around with no hockey team occupying their arena, the “extreme depression” continued.
“It felt like a part of my life was missing. Sure, I could watch the [Boston] Bruins on TV, but it just wasn’t the same,” Mogilka explained. “I missed my ‘family,’ cheering on my team, booing, and yelling. I miss banging on the glass, being upset with losses, and becoming overjoyed with wins.”
Nathan Oystrick, who currently serves as an assistant coach for the East Coast Hockey League’s Atlanta Gladiators, remembers his time as a player in Portland during the 2011-12 season and just how dedicated Pirates fans were.
“They have passionate fans who supported us through an up and down season,” Oystrick recalled. “It was the only time in my AHL career that a team I played on for a full season didn’t make the playoffs, and it was tough at times.”
Despite enduring a tough season that year, Oystrick enjoyed his stay in Portland and has carried those special times with him through his first season as a coach.
“It’s definitely a city that deserves a professional hockey team,” he continued. “The city and people of Portland treated me well, and I have nothing but good memories.”
The strength of the Pirates community was on full display last fall when long-time season ticket holder, Mike Sudduth, passed away. Mogilka had only known him for a couple seasons, but the passage she wrote following his death sums up exactly what the professional hockey means to the city:
“One thing that I loved about being a Pirates season ticket holder was the chance to have a family with tons of other passionate fans. We didn’t just know each other. We didn’t just sit in the same arena. We didn’t just pass each other by. We became a family. We supported not only our team, but one another. We bonded by a similar passion. Age played no divide. We were a family. Most importantly, we were #PiratesPride – we came together in a time of need and offered all of our love and endless support to those who needed it. It is now that I’m really missing my hockey family. Even though we are all spread out throughout the state and not celebrating the start of a new Pirates season, we are all together in spirit supporting our family.”
Aside from interacting with one another on social media, most Pirates fans haven’t been able to keep in touch with each other as much as they would like, especially when they don’t have 38 home games per season to attend together. However, Mogilka still feels a strong bond to the community.
“That’s one thing I loved most about being a season ticket holder – the family that you make. I still feel that we are a family,” she said. “When hockey comes back to Portland, it will be like nothing changed between us at all.”
Mogilka’s optimism of hockey returning to Portland can be felt throughout the entire city, and it’s tough to find Pirates fans in Maine who are opposed to a new league moving into the Cross Insurance Arena.
“I think for the most part, people are excited. We want hockey back, and ECHL works. It’s an exciting game, and I’m pumped,” said Mogilka. “Others aren’t so excited, but they are a minority.”
Although Pirates fans have been spoiled for decades with an AHL franchise containing first round draft picks and big names, that’s not what having a local minor league team in Portland is truly all about.
“It’s been a really hard transition without going to hockey games every weekend. The front of the jersey is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back,” Mogilka concluded.